"I want to be a role model – that’s why I’m here"
Harriet, who has low vision, struggled with school. She’s been fortunate to have loving parents, although they weren’t always supportive of her schooling.
For a long time they shared the prevailing belief of many Ugandans that educating and training young people with disabilities wasn’t worthwhile.
Harriet explains that her parents were told by her sister-in-law and others in the community: “They said, ‘You are wasting your time. That girl, she is useless. She has nowhere to go. You are wasting your money.’ And from that time they stopped paying for my school fees.”
Photo © Peter Caton
One day, on the radio…
“When I left school, I lived in the village, I did nothing,” she continues. “Digging, fetching the water, collecting firewood, helping my parents. I felt bad, because I had nothing. To sit at home without working or doing something, I was feeling bad. It was difficult.”
Despite feeling crushed to be missing out on her education, Harriet felt strongly that she had potential, if only she could be given a chance.
That chance came one day when she was listening to the radio and heard an announcement about the Connecting the Dots programme. “After listening, I told my father they have called for young people with disabilities. When I went there, they told me they are sponsoring young people with disabilities to study. I told my father I am going to join the course… I am going to do knitting.”
It was difficult – I didn’t know if I’d manage to make a sweater
The course was harder than Harriet had expected. She found it hugely frustrating and was often in tears. She thought about giving up, but told herself she’d been through hard times before, and forced herself to persist. It eventually paid off.
“It was difficult,” she says. “I didn’t know if I’d manage to make a sweater. But when I did, I was proud. I was happy, because it was not easy. I’m an expert now!”
Video Credit: Tom Jenkinson
Harriet is now in her second term at Nile Vocational Institute in Hoima district, and she eventually wants to be independent, earning her own income so she doesn’t have to rely on anyone else. “When I finish my school, I’m going for industrial training,” she says. “After my training, if I find somewhere I can make a workshop, I can teach others, I can get more knitting machines. That is my target.”
Photo © Peter Caton
Harriet’s father, Hosea, has had a complete reversal of his earlier views – he’s been so impressed with the change in Harriet since she joined Connecting the Dots that he’s now one of the programme’s most outspoken advocates. He leads the parents’ association and spends his time convincing other parents that their children have the potential to gain skills and earn an income.
Harriet has been inspired by people like William, who leads the council for disability in Masindi district. He has shown her that people with disabilities can do much more than their families and communities realise. In turn, she wants to inspire others.
Photo © Peter Caton
Watch Harriet deliver a question on disability inclusion to the candidates for UN Secretary-General in 2016:
When we caught up with Harriet in 2019, she was proud to tell us she’s now self-sufficient, with two means of income: making and selling sweaters to individual clients, as well as working as a support teacher in an inclusive school in Masindi where she began as an intern following her training. Harriet teaches new starters with visual impairment how to read braille, alongside their regular mainstream classes.
She’s particularly proud of two students who are able to read and write using braille in exams without any additional support, thanks to her teaching.
Harriet told us attitudes towards people with disabilities have changed significantly over the course of the last five years in Masindi. This is partly because parents of children with disabilities and others have seen that people with disabilities can be productive members of society and earn an income.
But there are still challenges. Harriet explained that some children need support with socialising when they first start at the inclusive school, as their parents have kept them at home and they are not used to spending time with other children and adults.
She believes the solution to creating a fairer world for children and adults with disabilities is to ensure good leadership within communities, so the rights of people with disabilities are advocated for.