Sightsavers Reports

The most hard-working volunteer in Uganda

Joseph demonstrating sign language.

Joseph Baguma is the only member of staff at Kamurasi Demonstration school in Uganda who knows sign language.

So he sits in class with children who have hearing impairments and signs the lessons for them. The kids absolutely love him and he’s an involved and engaging teacher.

After class, he races down the road and covers the 2km commute to his other job, a voluntary, unpaid role at the office of Sightsavers’ Connecting the Dots project in Masindi district. It’s enough of a walk that most of us would complain about doing it every day, twice a day. But Joseph not only does it uncomplainingly, he does it with a huge smile on his face. And for him it’s no easy walk.

Joseph only has the use of one leg – the other was badly affected by polio in his childhood – so he relies heavily on a walking stick to get from A to B. The polio also resulted in his damaged leg being significantly shorter than the other, and he can’t afford a built-up shoe from the hospital as the cost is far more than his earnings, so he designed and built himself a whole structure – a metal splint with a wood and leather shoe. He wears it until it falls apart, then he builds a replacement.

Joseph sits on the grass outside, with books over his lap, with the savings and loan group.

Supporting others with disabilities in Uganda

His days are spent hurtling about between school and the project, meeting various dignitaries where required, travelling around the district any time a sign language interpreter is needed, and running a savings and loan group for young women with disabilities. Oh, and did we mention he’s a devoted husband and father?

Joseph is an integral part of Connecting the Dots, and is the right-hand man of Edith, the programme coordinator. He seeks out young people with disabilities in remote villages, some of whom have been kept hidden away as they’re seen to be cursed or embarrassing, and convinces them or their families that taking part in the programme will give them the opportunity to earn a living. Then he convinces employers to give students with disabilities an apprenticeship so they can gain experience. He’s tenacious, and keeps on at them until they agree to take a chance on the students.

Joseph: in his own words

“I was not like this before. I suffered in the past, because I never had enough support from my parents – maybe that’s why I have that feeling for others, so that they can come up, [and not be] how I was. That is my thinking and feeling, that’s why I do this.

“I started my education when I was seven years old, in 1986. School was very difficult using a crutch, it was two kilometres to and from school so I was very tired. At first the other children were unkind, they took away my walking stick so entering the class was difficult and I used to cry. Then they were sensitised, they got used to me and they lived with me positively, school became good for me, I started loving it. It wasn’t inclusive, I had no additional support, but I joined in everything, I even played football.


Joseph and Edith laughing together.

The difficulties faced by children with disabilities

“I did not go very far in education because of my father’s attitude. He thought disabled children couldn’t be educated and he didn’t pay my school fees for secondary education. I could read and write after primary school. I wanted to go to secondary school but I had nobody to support me. Then an NGO [the Uganda Society of Disabled Children] came in to support me in attending vocational training – and I am where I am now because of the training.

“I got involved with the Sightsavers programme when it first came to the area. Whenever they [need me to come], I inform the head I will not be around; wherever Edith is going to meet the youth I move with her in the field or the office so I can act as an interpreter. I go to all regions the project is working in to talk to the deaf community. I do it voluntarily (sometimes when there’s a small allowance they give it to me) – I really do it willingly. I feel that I need other people to be like me, the way I am now.

“It’s quite common for there to be difficulties between children with disabilities and their parents. Parents here, they think when you have a disabled child or person or youth, it is a curse to them. They have the negative attitude towards disabled persons generally. If they have a visitor who asks how many children they have, they say ‘I have five and one disabled child.’ It’s not correct… it’s the segregation, they don’t think we are also people like them.

“Sightsavers has come in came and it has improved greatly as it has gone deep in the villages, trying to sensitise [people]. There have been radio talk shows, workshops, home visits. Radio talk shows are the most effective – home visits have done a great job too, parents have been sensitised. Some still have negative attitudes but some parents are willing and take encouragement. It gives them more encouragement when they see their children doing well – those that never wanted to support start to do so.

View from behind Joseph as he does sign language translation in a class full of children.

Changing attitudes, smashing stereotypes

“The attitude is trying to change, not very fast, but there are some changes that we see. It’s not just parents – the community is changing. Jacqueline (a student who now works in a beauty salon) receives able bodied people, and she’s training someone, so the community is coming up gradually. They see she is able so they go. Other able bodied people’s salons are there but they go to her.

“It is complicated for people with disabilities to get a job and earn a living. [Many people] assume that person cannot perform the way they expect other people to perform. Another challenge is if you have not gone further in education and you are given a job, you are underpaid because of your disability. I would like to see all people with disabilities employed and paid well like any other person.

“There is a boy called Michael, supported by the Sightsavers project, he is constructing in town and he is doing well. He is accepted but it was a struggle to go there; they asked lots of questions, they assumed he didn’t have qualifications. They only gave him a job when he brought his certificate.

“The dream I have for the youth who have taken part in the programme? I wish for them to be employing able bodied people in their workshops. They have tools, let them employ these people and let them be paid by disabled people so it’s the other way round. I wish to see all disabled persons in the region and the country having their own jobs, not depending on other people’s jobs.”

The European Commission has funded the economic empowerment programme since 2012, and additional funding was awarded in August 2017 by the National Lottery Community Fund. This generous support has helped to transform the lives of hundreds of young people with disabilities in Uganda.

A group of young adults with programme staff, chatting and laughing.

“I wish to see all disabled people in the region and the country having their own jobs.”

A group of young adults with programme staff, chatting and laughing.

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