Eric Wakoko: “I have a lot of lived experience of disability”

November 2020

Eric Wakoko is an action learning facilitator in Uganda, working with the Institute of Development Studies, as part of the Inclusive Futures employment programme.

Eric used to work as a counsellor at an infectious disease clinic and now works with young women and men with disabilities to support them to gain employment.

Here he shares his experience of life and work with us.

Eric’s story

“I have a lot of lived experience of disability. I am a person with visual impairment and a personal assistant works with me. I have experienced discrimination; people not wanting to hold my hand to help guide me, and people asking me during job interviews if I hired someone to sit my exams for me.

“I studied counselling at university and after the first semester, I fell in love with the course. I thought how I would use it to speak to more persons with disabilities, especially those living in rural areas because they are most often neglected and they rarely have access to any information on things like sexual and reproductive rights.

“I worked in an infectious disease clinic in Eastern Uganda and supported people living with HIV and other illnesses.

“One day a woman who had been tested for HIV was brought in. No one wanted to tell her that the result had come back as positive. They were worried how she would react if they told her, so they brought her to me.

“I disclosed the results to the lady and listened to her. She spoke strongly about the choice to commit suicide. I counselled her over six months, and she changed her mind. That was around 2014, and I still hear from her. She now has a stall in the main town market, her children have gone to school, she’s living positively and attending her treatments. So I’m very proud of that.”

Harnessing young people’s lived experience

“Then I embarked on speaking informally to groups of young men and women with disabilities.

“After a year or two, I become known for speaking up for people with disabilities and encouraging them to apply for jobs. I also started believing in myself, having that confidence and understanding that: “Yes, maybe others say I cannot do this, but what do I feel personally?”

“When I demonstrate what I can do, employers learn that there is untapped potential in persons with disabilities. But as long as they continue seeing a person’s impairments and not see them as a person, they think we cannot do the job.

“Because young people have their own lived experience, they know what needs to change.”

Testing new ideas

“My work involves supporting young women and men with disabilities and employers and other stakeholders, to brainstorm challenges in the world of work. They have lived experience of disability so we will bring them together, suggest a topic, and then arrange a methodology of how we will discuss and deliberate.

“We’ll encourage them to think of new innovations and ideas and these will be fed back to the Inclusive Futures consortium. We appreciate there are gaps, so the ideas from these young people will give us a new way of finding ways to bridge them.

“It’s all about openness – allowing people to share, and then learning and relearning.”

“We also want to hear from employers, to understand why some of them feel it is so impossible to include persons with disabilities in the workspace. There are some employers that have attempted inclusion, so it’s important they share good practice so they can learn from each other.”

Breaking down the barriers to inclusion

“Alongside working for IDS, I also work for Light for the World as one of 24 disability inclusion facilitators. During COVID-19, I spoke to jobseekers with disabilities to find out their experiences. One of the things that was put on hold here in Uganda was public transport. Even when restrictions were relaxed, transport operated at double the cost. So for persons with disabilities, even when they see an advert for a job, it’s really a struggle to make it there, to get to where they need to be to access information for applications. And when some are invited for interviews, they miss out because of inaccessible transport.

“We’ve found that exclusion through discrimination is still high. One person we spoke to was running for a political position, but people shouted from afar that he couldn’t do anything, because of his impairment.

“We’ve also recently done analysis into property. We found that when companies are downsizing, persons with disabilities [are often] the first people to be laid off.

“My hopes are that we can encourage employers to hire persons with disabilities. I believe and hope that many young men and women will be hired so they are not cut off from their communities, and can access the services they deserve.”

A man standing outside.

Eric Wakoko

Action learning facilitator, Institute of Development Studies

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