At 11, Chrissy Zimba, a researcher at the African Union Youth Volunteer Corps, suffered a spine injury and a doctor told her she would never walk again.
I was traumatised,” she says. “My dream to become a nurse was shattered. How could I be a nurse in a wheelchair? I thought I was going to join the people who beg on the streets.”
However, Zimba did not give up. She holds degrees from Mzuzu University and Africa University.
But after graduating, she attended two job interviews that left her with a sense of failure from the outset.
“I was interviewed in the reception area because the building was inaccessible for a wheelchair. In another, security guards had to carry me to the interview room on the third floor. I felt a sense of failure even before the results were out,” she explains.
But this is the story of hundreds of people with disabilities in Malawi who face numerous barriers in the world of work.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, persons with disability constitute 15 percent of the global population and three out of four are old enough to work. However, only one of four is working.
In the country, the 2018 Population and Housing census shows that about 1.5 million people—10.4 percent of the population aged at least five—have a disability or more.
“Out of the persons with at least one type difficulty, 49 percent had difficulty seeing, 24 percent had difficulty hearing, 27 percent had difficulty walking, nine percent had difficulty in speaking,” it reads.
Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi (Fedoma) head of programmes Simon Munde says most employers in Malawi seldom employ people with disability. He bemoaned lack of inclusive policies in the workplace for perpetuating poverty that push people with disability and their families further behind.
He urges Malawi to emulate South Africa in coming up with an employment quota for people with disability even in the private sector.
“Every organisation which employs more people has to ensure they also employ a particular percentage of persons with disabilities,” he says.
Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) secretary general Dennis Kalekeni backs the calls for a government policy to ring-fence a certain percentage of jobs in both the public and private sectors for workers with disabilities.
He is worried that although government institutions have some employees with disabilities, inclusion remains a big challenge in the private sector.
“Persons with disability are mostly found in non-governmental organisations, especially those which advocate for their welfare. But some employers in the private sector totally disregard them. They think that their productivity will not match their requirement,” he says.
Kalekeni asks government to ensure all structures are accessible to all—as the Disability Act requires—to set the pace for private businesses.
“Government, being the custodian of the Constitution which outlaws discrimination, should be in the forefront ensuring that structures are accessible to people with disability…it is not enough to include a Ministry of Disability. There must be practical action on the ground to show that government is very serious,” he explains.
The principles of equality and non-description are embedded in the National Disability Mainstreaming Strategy and National Policy on Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.
According to Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare spokesperson Lucy Bandazi, government’s performance contracts require ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to even up the working environment to eliminate barriers to employees with disabilities.
“MDAs are also required to put in place committees or desk officers that will ensure the undertaking of measures put in place by the institution on disability. MDAs are also required to come up with inclusive or specific disability policies that will guide their work,” she says.
According to Bendazi, her ministry is currently engaging private institutions to persons with disabilities that possess qualifications.
Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (Ecam) executive director George Khaki commends organisations already modifying their buildings to make them disability-friendly.
He states: “Some employers are not aware of the Disability Act, but most of them are now taking reasonable steps to accommodate people with disability in the workplace
“I have seen organisations moving departments downstairs just to accommodate someone with mobility challenges if the office was two or three floors upstairs.”
The Disability Act under section 30 requires government to give persons with disabilities special consideration when it comes to the right to development, eliminating social injustices and evening up inequalities.
The law calls for bold measures to promote equal opportunities in terms of access to basic resources, education, health services, food, shelter, employment and infrastructure.