Youth Changemakers Leading the Conversation on Disability Inclusion

Youth Changemakers Leading the Conversation on Disability Inclusion


The Mastercard Foundation prioritizes elevating the voices of all youth, including the voices of young people with disabilities.

Recently, the Foundation hosted a roundtable aimed at elevating the voices of young people with disabilities—all of whom are working to drive innovative change in their communities.

In Africa, people with disabilities make up over 80 million of the continent’s population. They’re twice as likely to be unemployed than their counterparts without disabilities. Additionally, the unemployment rate and barriers to dignified and fulfilling work are even higher for women with disabilities.

What needs to change so that disability inclusion is seen as a prime concern for governments, educators, and employers in Africa?

We asked the experts — young people with disabilities who know from firsthand experience—about the strategies and programs that work to make disability inclusion a real practice that brings about the kind of accessibility that changes lives.

The theme of the roundtable was Voices Amplified: Youth with Disabilities Leading Innovative Change, and there was no shortage of ideas on how to create stronger education systems, economies, and communities in which everyone has a place and can meaningfully contribute.

What needs to change?

From an early age, young people with disabilities face systemic inequalities in accessing education and the crucial support interventions needed in their first years of schooling.

Sixty-one percent of young people with disabilities in Africa aren’t enrolled in school. They are also far behind other job seekers in terms of seeking employment opportunities. Their setbacks often continue to compound, and the inequality gap grows.

Even when changes are made to increase accessibility in schools and office spaces, they are often implemented in a one-size-fits-all manner, which doesn’t take into account the diverse needs of individuals.

The starting point for effective disability inclusion strategies is by facilitating conversations led by people with disabilities. They have the lived experience to create authentic, innovative solutions to systemic inclusion barriers – barriers such as accessibility, communication, policies, and stigma. And they know what it will take to increase access to education and dignified and fulfilling work opportunities. Programs to support their needs must be developed with their input, collaboration, and leadership.

“The individual using [disability tools and accommodations] knows what works best for them,” says Enitan Sophie Oluwa, Founder of Natineee Empowerment for Sustainable Impact Initiative, which advocates for disability and gender rights in Lagos, Nigeria.

Enitan and the other panelists that participated in the roundtable shared that they want more than just a seat at the table—they want to speak up and be heard on the issues that impact their lives, and even those that may not be accounted for with a disability lens, such as mental health.

“I think that mental health is really, really important, and we need to speak more about it,” says Faith Musayoki, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and student at the United States International University Africa. “We need to be more conscious of it and aware of how the complexity of having a disability, the complexity of being a woman, all of these things couple up. It becomes very complex for people with disabilities. Mental health is very important. With the little information that you have, you can make a difference. You should speak up.”

Change is coming

“We change mindsets,” says Nina Efedi Okoroafor, the Youth Chairperson on the African Union of the Blind board. Nina is also a disability rehabilitation social worker and an advocate for people with disabilities. She believes change will come through the work that people like her and the others on the panel are doing through advocacy.

“We owe it to ourselves and people like us to advocate for them and to help teach our people. Be mentors to people who have disabilities and help them understand all the different things they can do with their lives, not to despair, and to get up and chase whatever dream they have. Not to listen to what people say—that you can’t do it, that you are not going to amount to anything.”

For Faith, advocacy means doing away with the “them” and “us” narrative that exists between people with disabilities and those without. Advocacy is the job of entire communities.

“Disability is viewed as this standalone issue that is left for organizations to manage. Disability is not viewed as an us problem, and I think we need to really emphasize the fact that disability is a communal thing,” she explains. “We as communities need to take ownership of disability and understand that it’s an us thing. Advocacy really is more than that, and the biggest percentage of advocacy isn’t even what we think it is. It’s not just organizations doing advocacy. Advocacy goes way back into the community.”

Looking ahead

The Mastercard Foundation is working with partners across Africa to remove barriers to education and employment for young people with disabilities to support their dreams and aspirations. We’re shaping this work based on consultations with young people with disabilities.

Some of the input, suggestions, and calls to action we received from the panelists at the roundtable include:

  • Facilitate improved teacher training to help teachers interact with children with disabilities, identify those disabilities, and escalate treatment and accommodations for children with disabilities.
  • Improve access and affordability to tools and systems to support the unique needs of individuals with disabilities—including assistive and digital technologies.
  • Implement solutions and accommodations pre-emptively instead of on an ad hoc basis, which is more expensive and creates delays.
  • Find pathways to include parents, teachers, friends, and entire communities in disability inclusion advocacy.
  • Create communication bridges between parents and teachers so that they can better support children with disabilities, reduce stigma, and find interventions earlier.
  • Do away with the idea that people with disabilities simply want a job and focus on dismantling systemic barriers to dignified and fulfilling work.
  • Do not make assumptions about the potential that people with disabilities have. Recognize their unique talents and perspectives, their adaptability, and their innovative problem-solving skills – all of which are an asset to employers and their communities.
  • Reflect on the misconceptions you hold about disability and work with others to tackle harmful stigmas and change mindsets. Changing mindsets is a powerful way to create change and is within everyone’s reach to implement.

“If you can reach back and touch a life and change a mindset to shift perceptions, then I think we will be bringing up an empowered generation of children with disabilities,” says panel moderator Julius Mbura, an Advocacy Officer Head of Legal and Computer Assistive Technology at inABLE. “To get to that point where they say, ‘I am liberated. I’m free. Where I am today is not the same place I’ll be tomorrow, next year, or in five years to come.’”

The We Can Work program in partnership with Light for the World is centering disability inclusion within the Mastercard Foundation’s broader Young Africa Works strategy, which aims to enable 30 million young people to access dignified and fulfilling work by 20230. It will enable the Foundation’s programs and partnerships to become more disability inclusive, led by the expertise of young people with disabilities in the role of Disability Inclusion Facilitators.

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