Juliana Mwase: Advocates for those living with disability

Born in a family of seven children back in 1974, Juliana Mwase was without a disability.

Growing up in Monkey-Bay where her family lived, she suffered from Malaria in 1983 when she was nine. Following that illness, she lost her hearing.

“We went to many hospitals, but nothing changed. I was in Standard Three at Monkey-Bay Primary School. The hearing problem brought many problems for me in school. I had given my friends something to laugh about. I would get disappointed and sometimes stay away from school to avoid the ridicule. But my parents really wanted me to get an education. I learnt by reading since I had a passion to learn,” she narrates.

One time when she went to a government hospital, they referred her to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH); still she did not get a solution to her hearing problem.

Juliana was then sent to Chiradzulu, at the education centre for the deaf. She stayed in boarding at Mary View School for the Deaf, but was going to Montfort Demonstration Primary School.

“In 1991, I was selected to Providence Secondary School. Thereafter, I pursued a few courses at The Polytechnic. I studied accounting, secretarial studies and business administration,” she says.

However, finding a job after her qualifications was no walk in the park.

“I would do well in interviews, but prospective employers told me they preferred someone able to answer telephones in the office. Three companies did that to me and for years, I stayed at home, unable to find a job. I finally managed to find a job at Mary View School for the Deaf where I worked as an accountant for five years,” said Juliana.

As someone with a hearing impairment, she felt it was wrong to work in a school for the deaf because at the time, she was advocating for an inclusive society.

That is how she found a job at the Malawi Against Physical Disabilities (MAP) where she has for the past 11 years worked as an accountant.

Looking at all the challenges she faced from education to looking for jobs, the mother of two embarked on disability activism in 2001, encouraging people with disabilities and advocating for their rights.

“I was lucky to get an education despite all the challenges along the way, but I knew there were others in my state facing a lot of challenges. I did not want others to go through what I did. My late husband encouraged me through it,” she says.

Juliana recalls being slapped three times by a nurse at QECH while expectant because the two of them could not communicate properly with her hearing impairment.

“Despite my education, I went through that and I wondered how someone with little education coped,” she says.

Between 2001 and 2004, Juliana was Malawi National Association for the Deaf (Manad) interim chairperson, a non-profit making association catering to the welfare and the interests of people with hearing impairments.

The organisation has more than 10 500 members across the country and Juliana became full time chairperson between 2005 and 2012.

Apart from that, she was secretary for the Federation of Disability Organisations (Fedoma).

“There were a lot of challenges when we established the association. We had no structures and money to run it. We used our own resources. While in my acting capacity in 2001, I began fishing for donors. It was not easy, especially because I was a female leader with a lot of males against my leadership. But I worked hard to uplift the organisation.

“I sacrificed a lot of travel time in and out of the country to uplift the activities of the organisation. Among other things, we have managed to train 20 sign language interpreters. Today, we boast of a secretariat with branches in all the districts of the country,” she says.

Juliana has undergone trainings in different areas and trains others with disabilities. She singles out one United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) conference where she had the task of explaining about the education of children with disabilities in the country.

She notes while the country talks about education for all, children with disabilities face a lot of problems at school.

“Most teachers do not know how to deal with individual disabilities. With children crammed in one class, teaching disregards any special consideration for children with disabilities. As such, most of them are like passengers just riding along.

“Apart from that, the workload for teachers with special needs is sometimes too much. Some teach in the morning, only to return and teach children with disabilities in the afternoon for the same pay.

“This is why the number of teachers with special needs remains low and most prefer to teach in private schools. With this kind of action the country cannot improve education, especially for special needs children,” she explains.

Juliana adds that although government is pushing for education for all, she imagines it will be an uphill climb as most schools in the country do not have enough equipment to assist children with disabilities.

“In addition, the goals for education for all were meant to be achieved by 2015; this is 2018, but nothing much has been done. Our country is rich in policies, but very poor at implementing those policies. We have the Disability Act of 2012, but to date, there is nothing on the ground,” she adds.

The advocate further notes that intake for special needs teachers is low in the country.

“Montfort College trains 150 special needs teachers every two years and most are for primary schools. We need more for secondary schools.

“In 2004, government said it would construct a special needs training college, but to date, there is none. If it had, we would have more teachers. Parliament approved the budget for that college long time ago and we have no idea where that money went,” she observes.

In addition, Juliana calls on the public to change the mindset on people with disabilities and that calling them names is not right.

“People stigmatise us; others laugh at us ,saying we do not speak. Some people think that I am self-centred and I do not want to socialise, but they need to understand that things happen. Lungalunga n’kubadwa, koma chilema chichita kudza, as the saying goes.

“I was not born with a disability, but here I am with a hearing impairment. When we fight for the rights of people with disabilities, people might think we are being difficult, but no one can tell what tomorrow brings,” she explains.

Juliana—a mother of two girls and a grandmother of one—was born on March 23 1974. She lost her husband 12 years ago. She likes to read the Bible and mingling on social media.

“With hearing impairment I cannot listen to the radio and cannot watch television either because without a sign language interpreter, I cannot hear anything thing. I like to read newspapers, chatting with my family and watching soccer. I am a huge fan of the Bullets,” she says.

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