Richard Mukaga, who contracted polio when he was six, has walked a long and very hard path to receive an education and find a job. At an event to celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities held at UNESCO, he spoke about the way determination, education and a supportive mother transformed his life.
Mr Mukaga was one of six children brought up by his single mother in the very rural Namaingo Province in Eastern Uganda where polio left him unable to walk unaided from an early age. He learned to move leaning heavily with both hands on a wooden stick.
He took part in a panel discussion, Inclusive Education and Training for Inclusive Labour Markets, organized by UNESCO and Leonard Cheshire Disability at UNESCO Headquarters on 2 December. The panel addressed the key role of inclusive education and training for persons with disabilities, and innovative policies, programmes and practices to expand access to education, skills development and inclusive labour markets.
Now Head of Programmes at Cheshire Services Uganda, a member of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Global Alliance, Mr Mukaga has devoted his life to education and development for people with disabilities.
His own education began with a 16-kilometer round trip to primary school.
“There were very few seats at my school and only the strongest and fastest would get them so I spent most of my schooling on the floor,” he said.
But he was a bright pupil and was soon top of his class. Moving to secondary school he experienced the first of many financial setbacks when his mother was unable to pay his fees and a relative had to step in. Having achieved good O Level grades, the money ran out again.
“I went home and for a year I grew rice and millet and sold it to save up to study more,” he said.
He had not only to endure the tough physical work of farming but the taunts of neighbours.
“They laughed at me for pretending to be a scholar now that I was back in the fields,” he said.
By his side throughout was his mother doing what she could including catching and selling fish in the market to add to his school savings.
“She told me from an early age that if I didn’t go to school I would not have a life,” he said.
To help him advance to tertiary education a student friend allowed him to stay in his hostel and each night he would study his friend’s classwork for that day.
After years of struggle he qualified as a teacher just at a time when the government was cutting recruitment.
He switched direction and was finally admitted to Uganda’s largest university, Makerere, to study economic and social administration.
“The university environment was very insensitive. There were maybe a 1000 students in class and a fierce scramble for seats. I studied from outside the lecture theatre. When lectures were held at different faculties they would run and I would be left behind,” he said.
When he was offered the worst accommodation next to the toilets he protested, won the fight and became an instant advocate for disabled rights.
When it came to the world of work in one instance he did not mention his disability in his application.
“When I turned up it was obvious they were shocked but I was taken on, on my own merit, which was a huge achievement for me,” he said.
He not only gained a BA in Social Sciences from Makerere University, he also holds an MA in Disability Studies-Special and Inclusive Education from the University of Roehampton London UK and the University of Karolina Praha (Czech Republic).
Now his determination is directed at improving education access and conditions for others. Alongside family and community support which he feels is crucial to build self-belief, he stresses the importance of meaningful laws and their effective dissemination.
“Uganda has laws to protect those with disabilities but often those very people have no idea of the law. And laws need to work together. For example, when we have laws improving access to education by disabled people, there is need for an equivalent law to improve access to employment,” he said.