Reflections on the challenges that people with disabilities face in Kibera, Nairobi

Dr Ben Oldfrey, Global Disability Innovation Hub
Aug. 7, 2019


Last month, a team from GDI Hub and the University of Nairobi conducted a study, interviewing wheelchair users living in Kibera – an informal settlement found in Nairobi, Kenya. The study was part of a wider project with the aim of learning how people with disabilities use technology in their everyday lives and understanding the barriers people with disabilities (PWDs) face in various environments. This will hopefully then inform both us and the wider community of innovators in developing better technologies designed to improve the well-being and quality of life of these people and people in similar situations around the world. For now, we wanted to give a flavour of what challenges these people face every day.

Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa, and the third-largest slum in the world. It is thought to contain around 700,000 people, but estimates vary between 350,000 and a million. The settlement is comprised of 10 villages: Lindi, Soweto (East and West), Makina, Kianda, Mashimoni, Gatuikira, Kisumu Ndogo, Laini Saba, Siranga, and is situated 6.6 km from the city centre.

Life in Kibera unsurprisingly poses many challenges for everybody, however disabled people in these conditions obviously end up leading particularly difficult lives. This said most of the participants we spoke to have come to live here by choice from rural areas. They come looking for work opportunities and other conveniences that urban living still brings such as proximity to shops and other services. The rural areas they come from have even less opportunity, and they generally seemed happy with their decision to swap the different make-up of challenges they faced in rural settings for a slightly different set in Kibera.

From the participants in the study, we saw some common themes in the problems they faced in their lives. Mainly, the terrain in Kibera is highly unsuitable for wheelchairs. A few of the major throughways have been tarmacked in the last five years, which makes life a little easier, however the overwhelming majority of the roads are not. Most of the homes we visited were far from the road, and usually, this entailed navigating very tight alleyways of very rough ground, with drainage streams running through them. Various makeshift wooden platforms are built to hop over these streams at points, but on the whole, the paths to these people’s homes are simply not possible in a wheelchair, regardless of what modifications or improvements could be made to the design. Often, they rely on others, usually a family member if they have one, to be able to leave or return to their home. They need both them and their wheelchair to be carried to and from the wider paths. If they do not have someone to help them, or that person is not available, then they are simply housebound, and a feeling of isolation is very common. A further main mobility problem highly emphasized by the interviewees was the inability of their wheelchairs to allow them to go up hills on their own - much of Kibera undulates up and down. This means requesting help from passers by, who will often insist on payment for their efforts. This reliance on others has an added impact on the basic privacy of individuals - they generally cannot go somewhere without someone knowing where.

Other highlighted problems were the weather, which is a serious problem for many residents, the geography means that in the rainy season, flooding is a huge problem. For wheelchair users however, any wet weather on the already difficult ground, generally makes going anywhere impossible, their wheels will just slide around in the mud, which is extremely quick to form. This means work is not an option for those that do have a job. Another issue mentioned was that most of the residents need to go and collect water for drinking, cooking and washing, this also requires someone else to do it for them, so if the PWD doesn’t have a family member or friend who is willing then they will have to pay for that too, as well as the water itself.

Many adults, if they have a choice, will try to get a hand pedalled tricycle over a traditional manual wheelchair as these allow them to travel around Kibera more easily, however these present problems when going into the rest of Nairobi. Some, who are trying to study, for example, want to go into the city centre, but the tricycles mean they cannot enter most buildings, and certainly cannot go up to higher floors. One participant, for this reason, opts for a traditional manual chair, which limits him in Kibera, which is most of his time, but means he can get himself into lifts and to the online IT course he is studying, which is on the 4th floor of a building in central Nairobi. Regardless of the wheelchair type, the travel out of Kibera will usually mean doubling the fare they pay in a bus or matatu, 1 fare for them, 1 fare for the wheelchair.

Improving the well-being of PWDs are a few groups, one of which is the Kibera Disability Group who come together once a week for support and to educate on what resources are available. Through these groups, provision of wheelchairs or other assistive technology is sort from outside sources and often this is how many individuals manage to get what they need. It’s important to note though that these groups are home-grown and self-organised, but they are key to getting things done, and this is reflected in the admiration that the people we spoke to had for the people involved in organising them. It is through them that we got into contact with the participants, so we’d like to thank them for those valuable connections and would also like to thank our partners at the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust and Motivation Kenya for their help in organising these ongoing studies.