Elizabeth Ombati

July 2020
A woman smiling.
© Sightsavers/Patrick Meinhardt

Elizabeth Ombati is a DPO (disabled people’s organisations) engagement officer with the African Disability Forum, a member of the International Disability Alliance, which is an Inclusive Futures partner.

Elizabeth works on the Inclusive Futures employment project. Here she explains her experience with anxiety and how she is channelling this, alongside her passion for disability rights, into supporting other people with disabilities to gain jobs with employers that support them.

I love to write a lot, and that is the reason I chose this career, so I didn’t have to speak in front of people

I graduated in 2007 with a diploma in journalism. I have major issues with anxiety, so I chose something that would fit with the impairment, which was not a good thing because now I realise that the environment should change to accommodate me.

The newsroom was quite intensive for me, and it was really difficult back then to tell people about a mental health impairment. The unfortunate thing is, I hardly kept jobs and looking back, it was not really my problem – I did not have a safe space to share my condition and be accommodated.

Many people think they are left out because of the impairments they have, but that’s not correct

They are left out because the workplace is totally not accessible for them.

Its far beyond the duty of the person with disability to tell an employer to offer reasonable accommodation in the workplace. Employers should know their duties under law and they should be able to reach out to people who are most likely left out, and improve the physical accessibility, or even the social environment, in the office.

Early in my career I quit a number of jobs, mostly because of how my impairment presented

In my first job, initially I worked behind a computer, which was a safe space for me. But my boss moved me to the front desk where phones were ringing all the time, and I could not keep up with that. When the telephone rings, my heart beats really hard, and in my head, I’m asking myself: “Who is calling? What do they want?”

I couldn’t live on the edge all the time so I turned in my resignation within a week of being put at the front desk. Looking back, I wish I had the courage to tell my boss that I wouldn’t thrive well at the front desk because I was doing pretty well behind the computer. I wish that employers could also ask employees and potential employees about reasonable accommodation because at times employees may be hesitant for fear of being treated differently and the stigma that may be attached to this.

The fact that I could not keep jobs, is not something that I had to attribute to the impairment, rather it’s that there was no safe space for me to share these experiences and in turn be offered reasonable accommodations.

I wish an accommodation could have been made and it wouldn’t have meant that I wasn’t a good employee; instead it would be about seeing where I thrive and how. I’m a hard worker, I’m committed. I consult people because I think no one person can work alone. I love it when I’m able to finish something, not alone, but in a team. The greatest quality I bring to a workplace is, I smile a lot, and I feel that the world needs more smiles.

When I was in my 20s, everyone was saying: ‘What happened to you?’

In high school, people told me I had a bright future – but then you get to a point and you’re stuck. No career move, no education, no nothing. And you blame yourself, [thinking] that it’s because of the anxiety, so you keep feeling bad about yourself. But then I met a wonderful team at Users and Survivors of Psychiatry in Kenya (USP Kenya) who support me and have built my confidence along the way.

Now, 10 years in, I feel that I’ve built myself a good career – I work in the disability movement

I am a disability rights self-advocate and a member of USP Kenya which works to promote and advance the rights of persons with psychosocial disabilities.

I recently completed a Fellowship programme with the International Disability Alliance, which trains disability rights advocates how to include the rights of people with disabilities in progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. I continue to use the platform to advocate within a human rights perspective for the inclusion of people with disabilities.

As a self-advocate, I have been passionate in advocating for an inclusive society where all persons with disabilities enjoy all their human rights

I advocate through writing; I have a blog and I also contribute to the national newspaper in Kenya on issues of disability and inclusion. So I didn’t completely lose my dream of being in journalism.

I am not sure I really want to go back to a newsroom. If I go back to what I call the ‘mainstream job arena’, I would appreciate employers giving people space to express what they require to perform as well as others. Employers really have to take the rights of all persons with disabilities seriously.

As the DPO engagement officer, I ensure the voices of people with disabilities are represented and heard

Amplifying the voice of all persons with disabilities, in all their diversities, fills my heart with so much joy. As a woman with a psychosocial disability, being offered this platform is a living example of what it means when people with disabilities receive support to achieve their potential.

To meaningfully engage persons with disabilities in all matters that concern them is so critical in ensuring not only that our communities are just and inclusive, but also that people with disabilities fully engage in decision-making. In my role, it’s critical for me to remind all our programme partners to ensure that everything they do reflects the letter and spirit of the CRPD and that people with disabilities (including groups that are particularly marginalised) and DPOs are meaningfully involved at each level of the programme.

I hope people with disabilities will have a platform to talk with employers, to dispel the idea that employing people with disabilities is more costly. It is crucial that employers continually check for reasonable accommodation without the employee having to directly report a disability. These conversations will ensure we move forward. It is such a pleasure to be part of this work.

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