In 2005, while I was studying for my law degree, I started learning Kenyan sign language—just for fun. At that time, I knew little about human rights as they apply to people with disabilities—and certainly had no inkling that I would end up specializing in that very area.
Often, my family and friends would ask me what possible use sign language was to a lawyer. I’d say, “I might someday have a deaf client”—since I assumed that I would become a practicing advocate and saw that as the only way that I would ever combine my sign language and legal skills. How wrong I was!
Six years later, I was working as the human rights officer on disability at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. I had found a way to merge my legal training with my growing interest in disability rights. But while I found the work at the commission thoroughly engaging, I also felt that I was only scratching the surface—that there was so much more to human rights as they apply to people with disabilities than I was aware of at the time.
I started wondering whether there were studies in disability within the realm of law that I could pursue. Google searches mainly yielded disability studies within education, health, and social work. And so I was delighted to discover that the Centre for Disability Law and Policy of the National University of Ireland, Galway, was offering a master's in international and comparative disability law and policy. And absolutely thrilled to be awarded a scholarship by the Open Society Foundations to undertake the course.
At that point, I had never lived apart from my family, and so a year away was both appealing and also a little frightening! But I need not have worried. The center is a wonderful place in which to study, with a real student-centered approach and extremely supportive lecturers. And it’s a real community. And so alive—with visiting researchers from other countries ensuring that it stays amazingly vibrant all year round.
The LLM class drew together a diverse range of people—barristers, relatives of people with disabilities, and service providers among others. The classes were so interactive and practical, including one memorable occasion when a parent of a child with autism came and shared stories about her struggle to ensure that her child received an education.
We also held debates on various topics, such as what the paradigm shift in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on legal capacity means at a practical level. On other occasions, we had the opportunity to hold Skype conversations with various key actors on disability around the world including Shuaib Chalklen, the UN Special Rapporteur on Disability, and Ron McCallum, the chairperson of the CRPD Committee.
An interesting—and challenging—aspect of studying at the center was knowing that I (and the other two Open Society Foundations-supported scholars from Africa) was expected to be the “Voice of Africa.” It kept me on my toes and also encouraged me to filter the theories through the realities of life in Kenya as I know it, to begin to see how they could make a difference in people’s lives thousands of miles away from Galway.
And this was another reason why it was so wonderful to have other Open Society Foundations scholars from Africa, so that we could sit together after class and wonder how we could make the concepts we were learning applicable back home. Indeed, some of the ideas—such as personalized budgets as a way of actualizing Article 19 of the CRPD on living independently in the community—seemed way out there to us. Indeed, that was partly why I decided to write my dissertation on Article 19 since I wanted to understand how to make it practical in an African context.
It is also why I decided to conduct interviews for the dissertation even though this was not a requirement. I felt that I could benefit greatly from asking people on the ground in Kenya about their ideas on how persons with disabilities could be able to live independently in the community. It was the best decision I could have made. The interviews taught me so much—providing me with priceless information and insights.
The key thing I learned is that open societies have to be inclusive societies. A society that has people living on the margins, concealed, or locked up cannot claim to be an open society.
I also learned that the CRPD is so much more than just an international treaty—it’s a powerful tool for change. Persons with disabilities in Kenya are using this tool to change the way they look at themselves and to challenge the way society looks at them and treats them.
The CRPD demands a comprehensive change across all sectors—education, health, and governance—with a message that speaks to everyone: “INCLUDE US!” And the values underlying the CRPD are truly transformative—dignity, equality, autonomy, participation, respect for difference, and acceptance of human diversity.
And there was so much more. The Disability Legal Information Clinic opened while I was at the center. The chance to volunteer at the clinic was fantastic. Dealing with real peoples’ issues (some of which had legal solutions, and some of which did not) taught me so much. In particular, it showed me that the law is a powerful tool for change but that it cannot address all the diverse needs that people have.
The center also offers additional scholarly opportunities. If you write a good essay, you are encouraged to submit it for either presentation as a paper at a conference or as a chapter in a book. Through the encouragement of the lecturers and the PhD students, I gave a paper on my preliminary thoughts on Article 19 in a conference on “Key Contemporary Housing Issues in a Changing Europe”—a paper that will appear in a forthcoming book.
But the LLM program is not just about individual work. Group essays are a key part of the course—and another way to get work published! But they are also are great way to hone one’s negotiation skills. (“Let's meet on Wednesday afternoon to start the essay, shall we?” “No, on Wednesday afternoon I have an appointment with my hairdresser, how about Friday evening?” “No, on Friday evenings, I go drumming…” and so on)—and to transform classmates into friends.
The LLM program also involved participating in lots of conferences, which helped us to stay engaged with processes in the real world, such as the reform of the mental health laws in Ireland. Conferences also offered a great opportunity to travel within Europe—indeed it was during one such conference that I saw snow for the first time in my life!
We also had the opportunity to attend a seminar at Interights in London on strategic litigation, which got us thinking about the role that litigation could play in advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in our respective countries. Of course, a stop over at the Emirates Stadium was mandatory during this trip!
We also had fruitful contact with other faculties, such as the Department of Women’s Studies, where my African colleagues and I gave a presentation on the status of women’s rights in our respective countries (Zambia, Ethiopia and Kenya). It was fun and fascinating. It also revealed how our different identities intersect—one is not just a woman, but also perhaps a woman with a disability, who comes from a minority community and belongs to a minority religion. The reality is that discrimination often arises from our multiple identities and is far more complex than it may appear at first glance.
Needless to say, this means that simple, narrow solutions are not the answer.
The facilities that the university offers never ceased to amaze me. If I needed a book that wasn’t available in the library, the library would order it for me. It was also great to have free supplementary computer classes and advanced English writing classes. And you can pick up other vital skills in classes devoted to cooking, creative writing, yoga, meditation and assertiveness training. I wonder if my family and friends will know which extra classes I took?
But I wouldn’t have achieved as much as I did at Galway without all the ongoing support from the Open Society Foundations—both the Disability Rights Initiative and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. Many organizations fund scholars but do not necessarily support them along the way—but not the Open Society Foundations. Indeed, the supervisors for my dissertation were the LLM Program Director, Shivaun Quinlivan, and Tirza Leibowitz, who is the legal advisor for the Foundations’ Disability Rights Initiative. Working with them was fantastic. They pushed me to read widely and to ask questions even when I could not answer them.
And the support from the Open Society Foundations stretched beyond the master's course, funding me to present my dissertation at an international forum in Washington on “Achieving Inclusion Across the Globe”—something I could never have dreamed of when I left Nairobi for somewhere called Galway all those months before.
When I jetted off, I knew that there would be some hard times ahead. But I was thinking about loneliness and homesickness and incomprehensible legal concepts—not that the temperature could ever sink so low or that the sun could set at 3 pm! And apparently, I was lucky because so many people told me that “we’re having such a mild winter this year”!
But having said that—Galway is such a beautiful city and so vibrant in summer with its film festivals and art festivals and music festivals. You literally have to refuse to read all the posters to get anything done in the summer! And, I must admit, I also miss living a stone’s throw from the (admittedly freezing!) sea.
Thanks to the internet I was also able to regularly Skype and email my family and friends back home. This allowed me to keep in touch with the significant people in my life, which helped me to cope with the distance (if not the cold!) and has also made settling back home much easier than I’d imagined. I have no idea what I would have done without the World Wide Web!
It really was an absolutely incredible year. I learned far more about the law and life than I thought possible. And to win the gold medal in my class at the end was the most amazing icing on the cake. And when I got the email from Shivaun, I couldn’t stop myself from crying—because it showed that if you work hard, and are adequately supported, anything is possible.