The year 2018 has been another year of empty promises to persons with disabilities. A year that was pregnant with so much expectation in terms of improving the lives of persons with disabilities has ended on a disastrous note, as their poverty has only worsened as that which was promised was not delivered and that which they were entitled to was stolen – the social cash transfer.

We reflect on the state of persons with disabilities in Zambia in light of observance of International Day for Persons with Disabilities which falls on 3rd December, 2018. We note with sadness that despite Zambia having a well worded law under the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2012, we continue to see a rise in street begging and destitution by persons with disabilities in both our cities and towns and in our rural communities.

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” These words are attributed a former U.S Vice President Hubert Humphrey, spoken on November 1, 1977.

The 2010 Population and Housing Census Report indicates that there were 251,427 persons with disabilities in Zambia at that time a number that is significantly lower than World Health Organisation estimates and has been disputed by the disability community in Zambia. This means that at national level there was 2.0 percent of the population being persons with disabilities. The proportion in rural areas was higher than urban areas at 2.4 and 1.4 percent, respectively.

International Standards such as those set by the World Health Organization provided that persons with disabilities were between 10 to 20% of national populations. When estimated at 10% of the total population in line with the Sixth National Development Plan (SNDP) and International Standards there could be about one million (1,000,000) to two million (2,000,000) persons with disabilities in Zambia, and most of them are not actively participating in the mainstream society.

The failure by the Zambian government to provide quality statistics on persons with disabilities is one of its major failings. We know that a National Disability Survey was conducted in collaboration with cooperating partners. This report has never been published, probably because it has disputed results. We understand that persons with disabilities through their representative organisations did not accept to validate this report because they couldn’t agree with some of its findings.

It is important that government attaches seriousness to this issue because they cannot effectively plan for a population of people they do not know, hence persons with disabilities will always be left behind in national programmes.

The Zambian government cabinet approved a National Disability Policy and action plan in 2014, reading through this document, even hiring a consultant to do an evaluation of its performance would be a waste of money because lack of implementation is plain for everyone to see.

When President Lungu opened the 3rd Community Based Rehabilitation CBR Africa Conference which his government hosted in Lusaka early this year bringing together delegates from across the world to discuss disability inclusion, he made pronouncements and directives that never got acted upon. It was a shame to spend so much money on a conference whose resolutions and recommendations never get acted upon. Why would you bring the world to discuss what you don’t practice? How many government buildings today can be accessed by persons with disabilities? How many jobs has this government created for persons with disabilities? How many children with disabilities are accessing quality inclusive education in Zambia? How many people with mental disabilities are roaming our streets today? Why do we still use derogatory words such as imbeciles to describe people with mental disabilities in our laws?

The Persons with Disabilities Act speaks of government reserving a percentage of jobs for persons with disabilities in both the private and public sectors, yet to date nothing has been done about this provision. In fact the private sector is doing better than government on this score, yet government, the biggest employer continues to discriminate against persons with disabilities in access to employment.

The Act promises parents of children with disabilities that they shall have access to grant to meet the educational needs of their children, this is not happening. The Act promises free education for learners with disabilities, yet many continue to drop out of school because their parents cannot afford to support the costs that come with their education.

Government must stop paying lip service to issues of disability and begin to put money where their mouths are. Surely, it is heartless to take away the little that these people deserve; it is cruelty of the highest order. In fact, it is simply evil and those who are stealing from the allocations meant for the disabled must be ashamed.

The theme for this year’s IDPD is “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”. This theme focuses on the empowering persons with disabilities for the inclusive, equitable and sustainable development envisaged in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The situation we have described does not in any way indicate that Zambia is committed to inclusiveness and equality. The government has a specialized agency called the Zambia Agency for Persons with Disabilities to deliver services and coordinate programmes for persons with disabilities. Why is this Agency, created by an Act of Parliament, so under-resourced? It has low funding and no visibility compared to other quasi-government institutions? The government must increase funding to this institution and build its capacity to deliver on its mandate.

In April, 2016 United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, published her end of mission statement to Zambia in which she lamented the issues we are talking about.

She observed that despite the adoption of important policies and legislation related to the rights of persons with disabilities, a comprehensive harmonization of the normative and policy frameworks in Zambia should be undertaken, to ensure their compliance with the Convention. Several statutory instruments, such as in the areas of education, health, accessibility and employment, need to be adopted in order to speed up implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act and other relevant policies.

Zambians must rise and end discrimination against persons with disabilities. Non Governmental Organisations need to wake up from and regain their relevance. This is one issue that concerns all of us because we are all at risk of acquiring a disability at any stage of our lives.