Kenyan breaks down work barriers

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Nehemiah Kigen Chirchir has no vision in his left eye and just 10 per cent in his right and grew up weathering schoolroom taunts of “one-eye” and “tilt-head”. Yet at the Safaricom call-centre in Nairobi where he works he regularly ranks among the top performers and has been promoted three times since joining the mobile phone company in 2007.

That the customer care worker has a better job than his farm labourer brothers is in part thanks to his mother’s insistence that he get a good education and to his determination in overcoming what remain considerable barriers to entry to the workforce for a 29-year-old almost totally blind man in a place like Kenya.

“Most of these companies, when you reveal you have a disability, they shy away from you,” he says.

But it also is due partly to a change under way in Kenya, which in 2003 passed legislation requiring all employers to reserve 5 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities.

Lobbying by the Kenya Union for the Blind with the help of Sightsavers – the UK charity supported by this year’s FT seasonal appeal – has been crucial to helping to implement the shift.

Pushing governments to ease the way for the greater inclusion of the visually impaired in the workplace has long been one of the core activities of Sightsavers, alongside its field work across the developing world where the vast majority of blindness occurs.

No one has yet managed to meet Kenya’s target, not even government ministries.

Safaricom, the country's biggest telecoms company, is one of east Africa’s most modern employers and has made a deliberate effort to boost its employment of disabled workers. Yet it remains far from achieving the government’s 5 per cent target with only 1.2 per cent of its workforce considered disabled.

“Like many other countries, Kenya [still] does not do enough for its disabled,” says Bob Collymore, Safaricom chief executive. “We do have a good proportion of disabled staff but we don’t cater to them well enough.”

Safaricom rejected Mr Kigen Chirchir’s first job application. It was not until the company participated in a forum about disabled rights months later that they called him back for another interview.

To help recruit more disabled staff it has had to adjust the way it does business. It gives visually impaired workers at its call-centre longer limits for call times and extra breaks to relieve strain. Special outsize computers are also distributed throughout the building, rather than ghettoising visually impaired workers in the same spot.

The adjustments have come as a result of regular input from the Kenya Union for the Blind.

“As much as we were ready to take on the staff we were not very clear on what was required to support them usefully,” says Marilyn Mbuthia, human resources business partner at the Safaricom call-centre.

The extra effort is worth it, says Ms Mbuthia, as the visually impaired workers tend to be calmer and harder working than younger people straight out of university.

But convincing more companies to follow the same path remains a challenge, says Moses Chege, of Sightsavers. Still more lobbying, tax breaks and other incentives, are required, he says.

So too is a change in attitude, according to those like Lillian Mulinge, a 27-year-old Safaricom employee who had cataracts as a child and can read with only one eye. “’Disable’ is what you do to a SIM card when a customer hasn’t paid – it means it won’t work,” she says. “I don’t like being referred to by that word: I can work.”

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