Uwezo changing lives of persons with disabilities

Bahati is helping other young persons with disability to change their lives. Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti.

When he lost his eyesight at 18, Satir Omar Bahati also lost hope for the future believing his eyes were very important for his life.

At the time, he was in his final year of high school and had suffered from long term usage of eye drops that later resulted into loss of vision.

“Becoming visually impaired at this age was a big problem. I thought there was no hope for a future,” Bahati says.

“It was a time when I was finishing my high school and was hoping to enroll for a medical or engineering course,” he reveals adding that it was not easy for him to cope with stigma of being the first blind person amongst his family.

He stayed at home for two years wondering how he could cope with his new strange situation until a good Samaritan took him to a centre for the visually impaired where he undertook mobility and orientation classes.

“It was so difficult to accept the impairment, but it was even more traumatizing to disconnect from my age mates since most of them turned their back against me yet it was a time I needed them the most”.

He later went through a reintegration phase to learn the tactile writing system used by people who are visually impaired to be able to cope with life. He later enrolled at the University of Rwanda’s College of Education.

In 2010, just one year after he enrolled at university, he decided to suspend his course and left for India for a one year Social entrepreneurship course.

“It was a sponsored training and I thought it was my entry point to start out entrepreneurship and start my journey in advocating for persons with disability,” he says

His dream, he says was to form a disability organisation in Rwanda.

Uwezo Youth Empowerment

He re-enrolled in school after returning from India and encouraged three other young people to form Uwezo Youth Empowerment in a bid to support children and youth with disabilities in Rwanda.

Uwezo is derived from Swahili to mean “Ability” a name that demonstrates the potential of youth with disabilities in all aspects of life.

“It reflects the saying that disability is not inability,” says Bahati

Currently, Uwezo is implementing projects that seek to empower youth with disabilities with entrepreneurship skills to create jobs or secure employment in various public and private institutions.

“When I started Uwezo together with a few passionate youth with disabilities, the most pressing need was access to work and employment. We were fortunate to get a startup grant to start our first project which provided paid internship to 50 youth graduates,” he says

Bahati says that from the internship, 30 of them immediately secured employments in different professions like project management, administration and finance, ICT, education and many more in public institutions, private sector and international organisations.

“All who secured jobs had experienced stigma before but now have a monthly salary each, besides employers are more tolerant towards people with disabilities”.

Historically, persons with disabilities struggled to access education and work which left majority of them illiterate.

Bahati says that Uwezo also considers that category and some of them have been supported to join vocational training, trained in business entrepreneurship and are now running small businesses.

He adds that youth with disabilities are particularly encouraged to take part in existing youth programmes such as the National Employment Programme (NEP Kora Wigire), the Business Development Fund (BDF) and through Saving and Credit Cooperatives (SACCO) where disability grants are channeled.

“Currently over 30 persons with disabilities are in informal trade in various parts of the country and their lives have drastically improved,” he said

Uwezo operates in five districts of Gasabo, Kicukiro, Nyarugenge, Musanze and Nyanza and reaches out to over 500 Youth with disabilities many of them from rural communities.

Uwezo is not an island and doesn’t work alone, and according to Bahati, they collaborate with the National Youth Council, National Council for Persons with Disabilities, Kigali Employment Service Centre and the five catchment districts of operation and local and international  working with youth.

Challenges still exist

Despite all the efforts made by the government and its partners, youth with disabilities still face challenges fitting in community based youth programmes, according to Bahati

“Youth empowerments programmes delivered at Youth Friendly Centers are physically inaccessible, vocational training at TVETs are not adapted to the needs of individuals with disabilities yet they have been proven a sustainable solution for unemployment among Rwandan youth,” he said, adding that starting a business was not also easy for persons with disabilities.

“Youth graduates with disabilities find it hard to enter the workforce regardless of their academic qualifications. Some employers most especially those in the private sector sound doubtful about the employability competences of people with disabilities,” he added

Beneficiaries speak out

Honorine Tuyishimire is one of the beneficiaries of the Uwezo Youth Empowerment.

The 31-year-old says she used to be affected by stigma and hardly thought of getting a job until she got her self-esteem through training and now she is project manager at Rwanda Union of Little People.

“Thanks to the training we acquired, we get empowered and we overcame stigma. Now I am employed and I am helping other persons with disabilities to know their rights as well as strive towards contributing to the development of themselves and the nation,” Tuyishimire said.