Enabling Uganda’s disabled women

[Image] The work of the women in Uganda is a revolution in their community for their peers and for disabled people. 

[Image] One of the founders of Made, Fatuma Acan, is the first woman in Africa to be trained as a wheelchair technologist and uses a wheelchair herself.
(Images: Whirlwind Wheelchair International)

MEDIA CONTACTS
Fatuma Acan, 
  Made Uganda
  +1 256 758 46 591

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Cadine Pillay

The 1995 World Conference on Women held in Beijing will always be a milestone to the disabled community in Uganda, as it gave birth to a project which introduced more comfortable wheelchairs.

According to a report titled The Status of the Wheelchair in Uganda, the country may need up to 1.5-million wheelchairs for its disabled citizens. The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every 300 people in the developing world is in need of a good wheelchair.

Shortly after the conference in 1995, the late Christine Kania, who was a member of the Constitutional Review Commission, trained three disabled women in Uganda who then started the project; two of them were Fatuma Acan and Sharifa Mirembe.

Promoting independence in the disabled community

The group of Ugandan women later trained in America and Tanzania after which they returned to their country to set up an NGO called Mobility Appliances by Disabled Women Entrepreneurs (Made) in 1997, to provide mobility to persons with disabilities.

Since then, Women Pushing Forward (previously known as Whirlwind Women), a women’s wheelchair-building project based at the San Francisco State University, has been collaborating with disabled Ugandan women in the manufacture of the Whirlwind wheelchair.

Made teaches them to enhance their own mobility and gain economic independence and has provided hundreds of disabled people with a wheelchair, thus giving them the chance to live a more productive life.

The UN and several private foundations provided Women Pushing Forward with seed money for supplies and training for the project in Uganda.

Women Pushing Forward is also a project of Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI), a non-profit organisation established to promote the social and economic integration of people with disabilities worldwide. 

Skills development for better living

WWI trains people with disabilities in developing countries to build strong, all-terrain wheelchairs made from locally available materials and costing about $399 (R3 500).

“Attaining an appropriate-technology wheelchair and the skills to build and maintain it can improve the quality of life of a wheelchair rider,” said WWI’s Keoke King.

WWI helps these new technicians as they work to establish self-sufficient production workshops, and links them through the global Whirlwind network of wheelchair designers, builders and riders so that participants from 25 countries can share solutions to design and local environmental challenges.

“By teaching people with disabilities to build the Whirlwind wheelchair, WWI also teaches them skills they can use to earn a living,” said Acan, who is also the director of the Pan-African Wheelchair Association.

Acan, who is the first woman in Africa to be trained as a wheelchair technologist, contracted polio as a child and uses a wheelchair herself. In 2010 she spent two weeks at MIT as a participant in their Visiting Practitioners Program.

In the past 15 years over 200 mechanics have been trained in more than 40 countries to build the Whirlwind wheelchair, and over 10 000 wheelchairs have been produced.

However, while women with disabilities have been recognised among these mechanics, according to Disability Worldtheir labour has not led to acceptance in the wheelchair workshops.

“Women continue to be discouraged from participation in wheelchair-building by the presumption that metalwork is the domain of men. Women Pushing Forward was founded to counter such stereotypical thinking and to help maximise women’s participation in all aspects of the wheelchair industry,” said King.

A good economic opportunity

“It took about two years of training for the Made staff to be able to produce enough wheelchairs to pay their salaries and expenses,” said Acan.

The Ugandan women also raised money from private funders outside Uganda and through a partnership between the Kampala Rotary Club and Rotary International, are able to provide subsidies for wheelchair purchasers, who battle to afford the Whirlwind’s cost.

Made employs a regular staff of four – three women and one man – and has two women apprentices. Information shared by Disability World at the Rehabilitation International Congress in Rio de Janeiro in 2000 showed that the wheelchair-building provided Made founders and the other women not only with a way to support themselves and their families, but an opportunity to control their own mobility and improve the mobility of many others.  

“Women who enter this field do much more than earn a living – they become role models for other women with disabilities in a non-traditional field,” said Acan.

“As contributors to improved mobility for the local disability community, they are helping to shape that community and provide it with important resources; as women with disabilities.

“They contribute their particular perspectives and creativity to the evolving design of the Whirlwind wheelchair, a contribution which has an impact far beyond Uganda as design improvements are shared by shops around the world through the Whirlwind Network.”

Overcoming odds one revolution at a time

The Whirlwind women’s wheelchair makers live and work by a saying: One revolution at a time. To the women in Uganda, their work with Made is a revolution in their community for women and for disabled people.

Acan and Mirembe have been activists for disability rights and women for the past decade, and also have experience in running micro-enterprises. These experiences came in handy when they entered a male-dominated field to become entrepreneurs and role models. 

A message, from women who build wheelchairs in Kenya, says: “Women with disabilities are just as able as men to create employment and sustainable livelihoods. We are a women’s group that uses some help from men. The women are in charge.”

However, while they have had confidence in their own technical potential since initial training, they constantly have to prove to a variety of sceptical observers that they can build and sell wheelchairs – an ongoing challenge.