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Fredrick Ouko,executive director Action Network for the Disabled
Eight years ago, Fredrick Ouko applied for a job at a multinational corporation, and was pleased when he received an invitation to attend an interview. Equipped with all the required qualifications, he was hopeful that he would get the job.
On the day of the interview, he dressed in a pristine suit and made his way to the company’s offices in Nairobi’s Milimani area.
There were a few candidates ahead of him, and when his turn came, he was upbeat and confident, ready to face the panel of interviewers.
But once inside the interview room, he immediately got the feeling that the interview would not progress as he had hoped.
“I could see the looks of confusion and disappointment on their faces. There were six of them and I could tell that they were unsure of what to do about the situation,” he recalls.
Ouko contracted polio at the age of two and uses crutches.
It was obvious that the people in the interview room had not expected someone like him to turn up.
The interview, he says, ended as soon as it began.
“They hurriedly asked me a few questions but were not patient enough to listen to me articulate my answers. I had all the qualifications the job needed and I had passed all the prior interviews, but this particular set of final interviewers did not give me the chance to prove myself. I felt as though they wanted to get rid of me as quickly as they could.”
Ouko says it took about two minutes from the time he walked into the room to the time he left.
Other candidates had taken an average of 15 minutes each.
He did not get the job. Neither did he get any feedback, not even a letter of regret.
Nonetheless, this experience was not in vain, for it would change the course of his life.
Born and raised in Khwisero, Western Kenya in a family of nine children, Ouko was the only one with a disability.
When growing up, he recalls his father being taunted about his condition, with some people advising him to stop wasting his money on school fees for a disabled child.
Outside his family, Ouko was considered an outcast without a future.
But his father ignored the doomsayers and took him to school, just like his other children.
After sitting his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2001, Ouko travelled to Nairobi in search of better opportunities.
He settled in Kibera and after completing a diploma in business administration, he felt that he was ready to seek employment and started applying for jobs.
That is how he ended up in that interview room.
“After that demeaning experience, I knew that I had to do something about employers and how they treat people with disability. I was qualified for that job, yet I did not get it because of my perceived ‘inability’. I knew that I represented the experiences of many people like me, so I took it upon myself to change employer’s perceptions.”
FOUNDED AN ORGANIZATION
Ouko decided that he would not search for another job. Instead, he formed an organisation to champion different causes for persons with disability.
Action Network for the Disabled in Kenya (ANDY) was conceived in 2003, but it became active in 2006. It was registered in 2009.
One of the organisation’s core mandates is to change the negative perception that employers have of people with disability and facilitate the access of these young people to gainful employment.
Says Ouko: “One of the major problems the youth face in this country is unemployment. For every five people in Kenya, two are unemployed. But when you are a young person with disability, getting employment is close to impossible.”
This is despite the fact that there is a comprehensive law that ought to take care of individuals with disability.
The Persons with Disability Act 2003 covers the rights of people with disabilities and advocates equal opportunities for them, including the requirement that both private and public sector employers reserve five per cent of jobs for them.
“Having disability laws and policies is one thing, but their enforcement and successful implementation is another. Young people with disabilities face a myriad of barriers when it comes to formal employment. I formed ANDY with the determination to change this,” says Ouko.
Part of the organisation’s strategy involves approaching companies and asking them to take on young people with disabilities as interns. They have a database of qualified young people whom they match with organisations that require their skills.
THE PROBLEM WITH EMPLOYERS
Ouko explains: “We have many youth with disability who have all the qualifications required to perform well at the workplace, but lack a place to put their talent to use. The discrimination and rejection many of them face when searching for jobs discourage them, denting their self-esteem and crushing their confidence,” Ouko says.
The problem with employers and their negative perception towards people with disability, he adds, is not that they have anything personal against such people.
They just lack information on how to effectively relate with them and empower them.
These attitudes cost the disabled population dearly.
“There are companies that assume that people with disability will be a liability; that they cannot work well, or that they constantly need to have their hands held. But this is a very wrong notion,” says Ouko, adding that it is unfair for employers to assume that disabled people cannot do certain jobs.
In the internship programme, ANDY, which currently employs 14 people, seven of them with disability, gives a stipend to the intern, with the company only being required to give the candidate an opportunity to put skills to work and enrich experience.
GIVE EVERY INDIVIDUAL A CHANCE
“We do not demand that the company employs the intern once the internship is over. If the company feels that the intern did a good job and he can serve well, then they are free to absorb him just the way they would employ any other person,” he says.
ANDY’s programme has facilitated internship for 40 young people with disabilities in 24 different companies. Of these, 28 have gone on to be employed in those organisations.
“We encourage employers not to generalise or make blanket statements about people with disability, but instead give every individual a chance to prove themselves. Statements such as ‘those people cannot do this or that’ are based on ignorance and stigma. We encourage them to judge someone as an individual, not as a stereotype of a group,” he says.
ANDY depends on funding and donations by individual wellwishers for its operations. It also has a couple of income-generating projects.
Ouko is currently studying for a Bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology at the University of Nairobi.
His work has not gone unrecognised and he has been applauded both locally and internationally.
In 2009, Brand Kenya recognised him as a young achiever, for his exemplary work in promoting the youth development agenda in the country. And last year, Ouko was one of the few individuals honoured to carry the torch in London at the start of the 2012 Paralympic Games.
He was recognised for ANDY’s role in using sports for development among people with disability.
He is also an Ashoka fellow. Ashoka is an organisation that recognises outstanding individuals for their social entrepreneurship.
ANDY has also been recognised in many forums for its role in championing the rights of the disabled as well as building their capacity.
Ouko is a Youth Action Net fellow, a US-based programme that recognises global youth who are social entrepreneurs and has been a guest speaker at many international and local forums, talking about ANDY’s work.
He is also a consultant with different companies and organisations, helping them develop inclusion strategies and policies in their workplace.
These include changing their systems, processes, spaces, language, culture, and matters that pertain to accommodating those with disability.
But this is not without challenges. He says that although there are companies that are willing to employ a person with disability, some are often reluctant to put in place systems to make working for that person easier or safer, such as changing access to buildings or office spaces to make it easier for wheelchair users.
Nevertheless, Ouko is upbeat about the impact he has so far: “In spite of such challenges, when I look back at my journey from the disappointment of my first interview to my achievements today, I am proud of the positive changes I have made.