Persons with disabilities (PWD) in Kenya become involved with the media for a wide range of reasons, including as reporters or activists challenging attitudes, practices, and policies, and to urge for a better representation of themselves and of their experiences. They may also be presented as newsmakers, such as in the case of the award-winning Kenyan athlete, Henry Wanyoike, who has won numerous medals despite his visual disability. In spite of these presences, media in Kenya have a long way to go in order to represent persons with disability in their completeness. Most media present persons with disabilities as objects of pity whose accomplishments must be held in awe. Yet the industry can play a central role in attitude and policy change at household, community, and national levels. In this article, we will consider ways in which media in Kenya can play a positive role in bringing to the fore disability issues, facilitating pro-disability behaviour, and ensuring the implementation of policies that protect the rights of people with disabilities.

The State of Media in Kenya

Kenya has a vibrant and diverse media, although most are concentrated in urban settings. The country has cable TV, satellite TV, and network TV operating 16 TV stations. In a country of approximately 40 million people, about 3.2 million homes have TV sets (1.4 million in urban and 1.8 in rural areas). TV reaches about 39% of the population (Steadman Group Report, 2008; Quoted in Mbeke 2008: 5). In contrast, about 7.5 million homes have radio sets (1.9 million in urban and 5.6 million in rural areas) with 63 radio stations (Mbeke 2008: 6). 16.7 million Kenyans listen to radio, and this suggests that disability interventions must pay particular attention to this media outlet, especially when one considers that newspaper readership is only at 23 percent (Steadman Group, 2008; Quoted in Mbeke 2008: 8). The dominant publishing houses are the Nation Media Group and the Standard Group. These houses are also home to electronic media, suggesting a media convergence that may not constrain diversity in terms of opinion and perspectives. New communication technologies, including internet and mobile phone, are growing and the country has over 14 million mobile users and over 3 million internet user (Communications Commission of Kenya Annual Report, 2008). Without doubt, these outlets have immense potential for influencing disability-related changes in behaviour and policies. But this will only happen if media owners and practitioners see the value of using the available spaces. What can they do?

Highlight the Ignored Story

Ahead of the 1981 United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons, the Kenya Government declared 1980 the Year for Persons with Disabilities and supported a number of campaigns on disability issues. Furthermore, in 1993 the Attorney General appointed a Task Force to review laws relating to PWD. The Task Force collected views and presented its report. Consequently, the Persons with Disabilities Act was enacted in December 2003 and gazetted for commencement in June 2004, with the exclusion of Sections 22, 23, 24, 35(2), 39 and 40 which make provision for adjustment of public buildings and public service vehicles, the issuing of adjustment orders to facilitate access, exemption from income tax, adjustment for access to communication by television programmes, and telephone services respectively. The Act was enacted to achieve the following main objectives:

  1. To establish the National Council for Persons with Disabilities.
  2. To provide for the Rights and Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities.
  3. To deal with matters connected with the foregoing objectives.

Consequently, the National Council for Persons with Disabilities was set up with the following key functions:

  1. To develop programmes aimed at improving the conditions of PWD.
  2. To issue orders requiring the adjustment of buildings that are inaccessible for use by PWD.
  3. To carry out the registration of PWD, registration of institutions that deal with disabilities, and the registration of places at which services are offered.
  4. To implement measures intended to benefit PWD.
  5. To raise public awareness regarding PWD.

In order to achieve these objectives, the government drafted the National Disability Policy (2006) so that it can guide government plans on how to address the needs and aspirations of PWD in prevention, awareness and public education, rehabilitation, education and training, employment and economic empowerment, culture, sports and recreation, health, income maintenance and social support, participation and representation, transport, housing, information and communication, protection and legal services, assistive devices, and services. Disappointingly, not much has been done to coordinate with building contractors, public transport, educational institutions, and medical facilities to ensure they are disability friendly.

Despite its strengths, a close examination of the Persons with Disabilities Act (No.14) of 2003 shows that it does not articulate coherently the key values on which it is founded, including gender equality and non-discrimination, equalisation of opportunities for all citizens, and universal design in constructions. Moreover, the 2003 Act seems to be an unaccompanied tool whose provisions are not harmonized and attuned with other domestic legislation. Consequently, implementing the Act becomes a challenge because it is contradicted elsewhere in the statutes (Mute, 2007). In addition, the disability issues addressed in it require integration into the broader arena of social legislation so as to gain acceptance. More work needs to be done to ensure that the Act is harmonized and implemented, and that the rights of PWD are protected at all times. This is something the media can pick up for national debate.

In a 2007 study titled Media Coverage of Gender and Disability in Kenya, Aghan Daniel has emphasised that proper and effective reporting on disability issues is vital for the inclusion of disability in the development agenda and within society. Although Kenyan journalists occasionally report about disability, they have hardly any training on how to do it in a humanizing and non-stigmatizing manner. In his findings, Aghan records that the Daily Nation (the most widely read paper in Kenya) had only 0.003 percent gender and disability stories during the period of the study and only allocated 0.24 per cent of space for reporting on gender and disability (Aghan 2007: 4). Apparently, these stories are used as fillers in view of their poor weighting as news.

Disability stories can come in the form of hard news, features, editorials, investigative letters to the editor, press releases, supplements, commentaries, and analyses. But for the journalists to report these issues and for editors to include them in the dailies or electronic media, they need a clear understanding of the issues, the language to use, and the angles to adopt. In addition to referential meaning (which refers to the object being talked about) and social meaning (which shows the identity of the person making the utterance), there is also affective meaning (which allows for a variety of interpretations resulting from word choice, intonation, and body language (Finegan & Besnier 1989: 175). Affective meaning is processed through an examination of language choice, and it shows the feelings, attitudes, and opinions about a particular piece of information or about the context of the conversation.

Let me elaborate. A story on disability carried by The Saturday Standard on May 19, 2007 was titled: "Priest on a Noble Mission for the Destitute in Kwale." The use of the word "destitute" to refer to people with disabilities creates the impression of helplessness and hopelessness. Framed from the position of charity-giving and sympathy, the story of a 52 year old priest "determined to raise millions of shillings, no matter how long it takes, to improve the lives of the disabled and disadvantaged in Kwale," is told in the feature article, and the journalist seems to be in awe at this generosity. Granted, journalists can contribute in profiling individuals who spearhead the campaign for the rights of PWD, but that visibility should not be done in a manner that suggests that the destiny of PWD rests in the hands of the able-bodied.

Significantly, affective meaning evokes emotions about a particular situation and may contribute to the enhancement of self-esteem or stigmatize the referent. Badly written stories may contribute to the loss of respect and lead to stigma and discrimination of PWD. Respondents interviewed by Aghan were of the opinion that the "lack of proper, accurate and timely information was to blame for the negligible number of stories." The researcher also reports that many editors treat gender and disability stories as hard to sell, with some arguing that their managers claim that stories on gender and disability are depressing (Aghan 2007: 15). Stories about persons with disability need not be depressing. They can be extremely inspirational and positive if presented by journalists who focus on the capabilities of persons with disability, rather than on the challenges they face.

The media can also open up an area of public discourse that could have passed unnoticed. On Friday 8th August 2009, the Daily Nation newspaper carried a story about an effort by a Member of Parliament to have the Persons with Disability Act 2003 amended in order to include albinos. The proposed amendment is a result of advocacy work undertaken by the Albino Society of Kenya and comes at a time when albinos in Tanzania are being killed for ritualistic activities in the belief that their organs have power to give individuals prosperity. Unfortunately, that story was tacked away in a corner of the newspaper and was not given any prominence. Electronic media did not carry the story about the intended amendment. The media missed an opportunity to discuss the weaknesses of the Persons with Disability Act 2003 and to educate Kenyans on the importance of amending the Act. Through the media, the Member of Parliament would have been encouraged to bring substantial amendments to the Act. Equally, organizations working on disability did not draw citizens' attention to the intended amendment. This situation can be remedied through a range of approaches, including the training of journalists, enabling them to undertake investigative stories from politicians and communities, sensitizing PWD on how to engage with media, and networking media with organizations committed to disability issues. Such organizations might include human rights organizations. The effect of this might be an increase visibility of disability issues through responsible and sensitive reportage. There are many disability issues of interest to a well-sensitized media.

According to a March 2008 Kenya National Survey for Persons with Disabilities, 4.6% of Kenyans (1.6 million) experience some form of disability. The most common forms of disability in Kenya are associated with chronic respiratory diseases, cancer, diabetes, malnutrition, HIV and AIDS, and injuries, such as those from road accidents (Kenya National Survey for Persons with Disabilities Preliminary Report March 2008: ix). Due to attitudinal and retrogressive cultural beliefs, PWD have often been subjected to discrimination and exclusion. In an Opinion Article carried in the Sunday Nation (August 10, 2008), Phitalis Were Masakhwe writes:

Disabled girls and women continue to be hidden, raped and denied education yet the Convention on the Rights of the Child and one on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women have been with us for a while now. Parliament and other decision-making organs around the world are conspicuously missing disabled people's representatives and yet we have very strong protocols and treaties on people's participation in planning and decision making (Sunday Nation, August 10, 2008).

The views articulated by Masakhwe on the exclusion of PWD in national and local decision making institutions had earlier been expressed during our Workshop on "Disability, Culture and Human Rights," organized by Twaweza Communications on 13-16th June 2007 in Nairobi. In his Keynote Address, Kibaya Laibuta, a Consultant for the Kenya Law Reform Commission, remarked:

PWD are a distinct minority group whose needs, capacities, and aspirations require special attention. The government's commitment to provide services and protection to PWD while according them an environment conducive to the enjoyment of their freedoms, liberties, and pursuits of happiness in accordance with its policy, can only be achieved through sound and effective legislation upon which enabling social and economic institutions may be founded. The vision to create a society that is fully inclusive and provides equal opportunities and access to services to PWD depends upon the extent to which the government, and the society at large, overcomes the historical, cultural, social, economic, and political barriers that stand in the way of this collective vision and the equalization of opportunities for PWD. (2007, 6).

The Kenya National Survey for Persons with Disabilities Report (2008) indicates that there is dire need for assistive devices and support services which would enhance the lives of PWD and allow them to participate more efficiently in day-to-day activities. When policies are made only by able-bodied individuals, they are not likely to cater to the needs of PWD, including information (hearing aids, magnifying glasses, Braille), communication (sign language interpreters), as well as personal mobility (wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, guides). Even at the household level, devices for personal care and protection (such as bath and shower seats), handling goods and products (such as gripping tongs, aids for opening containers), and computer assisted technology (keyboards for the blind) are all taken for granted. PWD also register low enrolment rates in educational institutions and this may be a consequence of socio-cultural attitudes and the unavailability of trained teachers and other support personnel, specialized equipment and instructional materials, and appropriate physical facilities and medical services. Although the government has provided Free Primary Education (FPE), poverty in many households still remains a major hindrance for children with disabilities to access formal education. A weak educational foundation, when juxtaposed with social prejudices in the cultural and economic spheres, leads to poverty and even more exclusion among PWD. Furthermore, economic challenges prevent PWD from participating fully in employment, commerce, and acquisition of credit. Disturbingly, poverty alleviation programmes have often failed to specifically identify and target PWD, and the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.

Change Attitudes within Households

Writing on the media in social development, Zeleza (2009: 20) has argued:

Of the media's many roles, four can be singled out for emphasis. To begin with, media serve as a vehicle for the transmission of ideas, images, and information. Moreover, they are a communicative space for public discourse and of the discursive public. The media are also an arena of sign communication and sign communities. Finally, the media constitute a process of performing social identities and identifying social performances.

Most perceptions about disability are formed within households and in communities, but media communicate values, attitudes, and beliefs, as well as play a major socializing influence as carriers of information and education. They are also central in shaping events within households and in determining how the body is perceived by the general public. Moreover, media are key in identity formation and can contribute in stigma reduction and the enhancement of self-esteem among people with disabilities; while reflecting public attitudes regarding disability, they also shape them. To understand how media frame the way disability is constructed in society, we would need to look at media content (representations, stereotypes, presence and absence), media technologies (access and technological determinism), and media policies (language, technology, content, scheduling). Language and images are central to media representations of disability, portraying it as an abnormality, impairment, illness, or a tragic loss of "normal healthy functioning". By emphasising the medical aspects, media may unconsciously promote emotions of sympathy or even awe and victimhood. The medico-charitable perceptions ignore the individuality, agency, and abilities of people with disabilities.

Media can reverse these perceptions through programming that looks at disability issues in a holistic manner and by linking disability with culture, poverty, governance, corruption, gender, and so on. They can provide models of people with disabilities who are bringing about changes in families and communities. Through the provision of alternative models in the media, new behaviour can be learnt and modified (Njogu 2009: 127).

Ensure the Constitutional Protection of PWD

At the national level, media can contribute to policies that are friendly to PWD. Kenya has a tremendous opportunity to do this because the country is developing a new constitution. Although the current Kenyan constitution does not provide a definition of disability from which legal extrapolations can be drawn, the Persons with Disability Act 2003 defines disability in Section 2 as a "physical, sensory, mental, or other impairment including any visual, hearing, learning or physical incapacity which impacts adversely on social, economic or environmental participation." It is in Chapter 5 of the Constitution that provisions guaranteeing human rights and liberties of citizens are made. The Constitution outlaws discrimination in Section 82 (1) on many grounds, including race, tribe, place of origin, birth, political opinion, colour, and sex, but is silent on discrimination on the basis of disability. This silence in the Constitution opens up the possibility of positive or negative interpretations, depending on the judicial officer. A judge or magistrate who is sensitive to disability may give a favourable judgement because exclusion on the basis of difference cannot be allowed, although discrimination on the basis of disability is not expressly prohibited in the law. However, judicial officer insensitive to disability may give an unfavourable judgment because the constitution does not spell out some of the prohibited grounds for discrimination. It could be argued that discrimination on the basis of disability is not prohibited by the constitution because it is not stated.

When one considers that the constitution is the supreme law of the land, media and disability activists could pick up this issue and demand an amendment to expressly include disability as one of the bases of discrimination. Considering that other amendments to the Constitution are being undertaken, it is important that disability rights be entrenched within the current Constitution, even as a new Constitution is awaited.

Disturbingly, the current constitution has provisions that can be read as discriminatory to persons with disabilities. These include:

  • Section 12, which states that "a person who is incapacitated by reason of physical and mental infirmity while exercising the functions of office of the president should be removed from that office."

Although this provision may be seen as reasonable with regard to mental illness, it can imply that those with intellectual or physical disabilities cannot hold the Office of the President. The provision could have been more reasonable if it had been interpreted without such ambiguities. For example:

  • Section 34 (c) "provides that for a person to qualify as a member of national assembly, he or she must inter alia:
    1. Be able to speak.
    2. Unless incapacitated by blindness or other physical cause, to read the Swahili and English language.
    3. To speak and read Swahili language well enough to take an active part in the proceedings of national assembly."

This Section has been reiterated by the National Assemblies Act, under which a Language Board is set up to test prospective members of parliament on language proficiency. The Act, including all other legislation, has not provided legal interpretation on the meaning of "language" and "reading." There is no clarity on whether sign language and Braille are acceptable. Encouragingly, the various versions of the Proposed Draft Constitution of Kenya (the Bomas Draft, the Kilifi Draft, and the Wako Draft) all recognize sign language and Braille. The State is also obligated to ensure that PWD enjoy that their rights are enjoyed.

The other legislation that protects persons with disabilities is the Penal Code, which prescribes principles of criminal liability. It makes provision for the protection of "idiots" and "imbeciles." The language used by this Act ("idiots" and "imbeciles") is highly derogatory and does not clearly identify persons it seeks to protect — persons with mental disabilities. Secondly, the offence of engaging in sexual intercourse with "idiots" and "imbeciles" amounts only to defilement, not rape, which therefore only results in lenient punishment, unlike rape, which attracts stiffer penalties. These are areas that could be picked up by journalists and highlighted so that they are remedied.

Support Affirmative Action

There are also other areas worth serious consideration by the media, including affirmative action for PWD. The majority of PWD do not have access to rehabilitation services, education, health or employment, and their representation in decision-making institutions is minimal. They face hardships as a result of social, cultural, and economic prejudices and abuse, and may be subjected to violence. Many are usually unskilled due to environmental, social, and economic barriers, and are therefore poor and cannot compete effectively in the labour market. Women and girls with disabilities suffer double jeopardy due to prevalent gender discrimination and impairment. They are more likely to be victims of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, especially in situations of conflict. Although the Kenyan Government has sought to address some of these issues by setting up institutions, such as the National Commission on Gender and Development, the National Council for Persons with Disabilities established under the Persons with Disabilities Act (No. 14) of 2003, and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, these efforts require constitutional mandate so that they are not left to the whims of politicians. The media can play an important role in raising the consciousness of citizens in this regard. Unfortunately, current media engagement with disability issues in Kenya is tokenistic and unsystematic.

It is crucially urgent that negative attitudes about disability be changed right at the family and community levels through the respect and enforcement of human rights, or the presentation of role models in society who challenge beliefs and provide an alternative view of the world. Moreover, there is also the issue of representation in decision making bodies. There is no doubt that in most of Africa, the representative function is perceived as better performed by an "insider" (Hyden 1996) because they are viewed as able to promote and protect the interests of individual communities and groups. By ensuring that persons with disabilities are visible in all sectors of society, including the media, the community will feel that disability issues are articulated. The media in Kenya can play an important role in pushing for the enactment and practice of affirmative action in Kenyan institutions.

The case for affirmative action for persons with disabilities is grounded in the philosophy of social justice, which posits that all human beings have expectations of certain basic needs necessary to sustain a decent life, and that the state should intervene where there are inequalities, which may be a consequence of circumstances, such as gender, disability, history and environmental factors. Moreover, the state is obligated to provide basic goods (education and health, among others), services and skills to all citizens, so that it can make informed choices and demand accountability and transparency from it's leaders. In situations of glaring inequalities such as is found in Kenya, the Constitution — the supreme law in the land — can be marshalled so that all citizens can feel protected. In his capabilities approach, economist Amartya Sen (2000: 68-71) argues that while human beings should consider themselves equal, they are inherently unequal; due to human diversity, policy should not seek to equalize human beings "but to support them to so that they can pursue to the maximum the life pursuits they have chosen for themselves."

The capabilities approach requires that we pay particular attention to the provision of equal opportunities and the facilitation of freedoms and abilities. Different varieties of unfreedom exist in the world — hunger, which denies people the freedom to survive; lack of basic health care, functional education, gainful employment, and economic and social security; inequality between men and women; and the denial of political liberty and basic civil rights. There is nothing as liberating as the freedom to realize one's potential as a human being.

PWD have always had a legal disadvantage in relation to other vulnerable or marginalized groups such as women, because the latter have the protection of thematic human rights conventions which can be used to safeguard their interests. Until recently, it is only the Convention on the Rights of the Child which has explicitly mentioned PWD. In other treaties, individuals with disabilities are only covered as being part of "vulnerable or marginalized groups." This is now likely to change due to the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Kenya should take a cue from that Convention and deliberately mainstream disability in its Constitution, at the same time taking into account that disability is part of the human condition and all of us are potential PWD. At the continental level, more work needs to be done by the African Union to demand that member states take steps towards enacting legally binding affirmative action in support of PWD. The media can play an important role in this pursuit.


Media are key in information dissemination, awareness creation, behaviour formation and change, as well as policy formulation and change. By ensuring that persons with disabilities are seen regularly in the media and are sources of news and analysis on topical issues, the public image of disability will be shaped and changed. The angling of issues related to disability should not be from the perspective of pity or awe but rather from a recognition of PWD and their own agency and individuality. When the voices of PWD are heard alongside those who are able-bodied, families and community members begin seeing disability not as a disease but as a condition that anybody can have. PWD want to contribute to community life just like anybody else; using their capabilities, they want their voices heard. They do not want to be viewed as victims. Media owners can take a major step by recruiting journalists with disabilities so that journalists can create their own images and tell their stories. Many disability groups also have views about poverty, governance, leadership, the environment, and public service. They should not be viewed as only interested in disability issues by the media. Kenya is undergoing an important phase in the nation's history. The possibility that the country might have a new Constitution in the not too distant future suggests that the rights of PWD will be protected through the Constitution. Media can play a key role in ensuring that those rights are indeed safeguarded and that mechanisms are put in place for the implementation of enacted policies. Finally, the media can address issues of accessibility (residence, transport, and information); poverty; mainstreaming disability in policies and programs; ensuring health care and education; engaging cultural practices that infringe on the rights of PWD; and paying particular attention to women and children.

Works Cited

  • Aghan, Daniel (2007). "Media Coverage of Gender and Disability in Kenya: A Situation Analysis." Study Report Submitted to Handicap International.
  • Communications Commission of Kenya Annual Report (2007-08).
  • Constitution Kenya Review Commission (2003). Report of the Constitution Kenya Review Commission: The Draft Bill to Amend the Constitution (Vol.2), Nairobi.
  • Finegan, Edward & Niko Besnier (1989). Language: It's Structure and Use. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Hyden, Goran (1996). "Combining Civic Peace and Civic Freedom: The Role of the Electoral Commission," in Kibwana, K. et al, (eds.), In Search of Freedom and Prosperity: Constitutional Reform in East Africa. Nairobi. Claripress, pp. 16-24.
  • Kenya National Survey for Persons with Disabilities Preliminary Report (2008), National Coordinating Agency and Development (NCAPD) and Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Nairobi.
  • Laibuta, L. I. (2007). "Reviewing the Kenya Disability Act 2003." Paper presented at workshop on "Disability Rights in Kenya: Networks, Practices, and Resources," organized by Twaweza Communications, Lenana House Conference Center, Nairobi.
  • Mbeke, Peter O. & Tom Mshindi (2008). Kenya Media Sector Analysis Report, November 2008.
  • Mute, L. (2007). "Law and Disability." Paper presented at workshop on "Disability Rights in Kenya: Networks, Practices, and Resources," organized by Twaweza Communications, Lenana House Conference Center, Nairobi.
  • Mute, M.L and S. Wanjala (eds.) (2002). When the Constitution Begins to Flower: Paradigms for the Constitutional Change in Kenya, Vol. 1. Nairobi: Claripress.
  • Njogu, Kimani (2009). "Rekindling Efficacy: Story Telling for Health," in Njogu, Kimani and John Middleton (eds.), Media and Identity in Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Odhiambo M. et al (eds.) (2005). Informing a Constitutional Moment: Essays on Constitution Reform in Kenya. Nairobi: Centre for Law and Research International.
  • Oyugi,W.O et al (eds.) (2003). The Politics of TRANSITION in Kenya, from KANU to NARC, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Nairobi and Heinrich Boll Foundation, Nairobi.
  • Persons with Disability Act 2003. Kenya Gazetter Supplement No. 111 (Acts No. 15). Nairobi 9th January 2004.
  • Sen, Amartya (2000). Development As Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Society for International Development (2006). Readings on Inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perspectives, Vol. 1. Society for International Development (SID).
  • Steadman Group Report for Kenya Advertising Reasearch Foundation, 2008.
  • Thussu, Daya Kishan and Des Freedman (2003). War and the Media: Reporting Conflict 24/7. New Delhi: Vistaar.
  • Yash, Ghai (2002). Reviewing the Constitution: A Guide to the Kenya Constitution. The Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, Nairobi.
  • Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe (2009). "The Media in Social Development in Contemporary Africa," in Njogu, Kimani and John Middleton (eds), Media and Identity in Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


  • The Daily Nation
  • The Standard
  • The Sunday Nation
Return to Top of Page