A vision for the visually impaired

Juliana Kivasu, the executive director of the Kenya Society of Blind, ensures high quality life for the blind.

By: BETH KIMANI

Macharia lies on a hospital bed after he was attacked by thugs. A blow to his head left him in a coma and when he regained his senses, he could no longer see. In yet another hospital bed is Eric. He had a lucrative job as an engineer in a large organisation in Nairobi until a road accident claimed his sight. On another end of Nairobi lives Sharon. She suffers from hereditary glaucoma, an eye disease that damages the optic nerve impairing vision and sometimes, like in Sharon’s case, leads to progressive blindness. About 331,593 people were visually impaired in 2009, according to the Kenya Society for the Blind (KSB). Last year, the World Health organization (WHO) estimated the number of persons inKenya with visual impairment to be 620,000. This number is distributed across all the 47 counties. Nineteen counties out of 47 are trying to implement initiatives to mainstream visual impairment, while majority are doing totally nothing.

KSB was established in 1956 by an Act of Parliament to promote the welfare, education, training and employment of the blind. The charitable organisation’s roles include helping the government, societies, organisation or any other person in all matters relating to the blind and awakening public interest in the welfare of the blind.

At the helm of the organisation is Juliana Kivasu who has steered its mandate for the last three years. “My passion lies in making a difference in other people’s lives. It’s fulfilling to see their journey to success.”

KSB collaborates with three ministries including the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Medical Services and Ministry of Public Health and Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Services. Getting funds Although created by parliament, KSB is not funded by the Government, but is allowed to mobilise operational and programme funds through subscriptions, contributions, donations and other forms of gifts. It is the work of executive director to implement these roles.

Her passion in transforming people’s lives has driven her throughout19 years of community work focusing on project management. Before joining KSB, she worked as a project development manager at Christian Children Fund, a social animator at African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect and a program officer, Nairobi development area for Plan International Kenya.

Kivasu has been able to steer the role of KSB, which is to ensure high quality life for the blind and provide psychological support. “The first step taken when one goes blind is to provide counseling. A trainer then comes in to help rehabilitate the blind person and assist him to learn self-dependence and live a normal life. They are taught how to familiarise with their surroundings. They can thus, still pursue their careers. For three months, the blind person is trained to be mobile without assistance,” she continues.

The organisation also presents preventive measures to eliminate unnecessary vision impairment. “It is this measure that led us to open an eye drop production unit,” says Kivasu. Through this unit, 28 different affordable eye drops are produced and distributed to government, mission and community hospitals.

The unit, situated at the KSB Center, has been stepped up in line with WHO standards. The unit which is to be launched by December 2012, will have a capacity to produce 400,000 bottles per annum at an average price of KSh44 (0.34 pounds) per bottle to be distributed in East African Communities.

Blind people face challenges like stigmatisation while others lack an education. “In 47 counties, we identify the visually impaired and have resource centers where they receive specialised training. They may not be able to afford their own learning items like a braille machine which has to be imported at a cost of KSh50,000. After the training, they are absorbed into the normal education system. This poses another challenge if there are no teachers trained to teach the blind. We are also investing in training teachers over a three month period to equip them with skills that will enable them teach the visually impaired.”

After receiving an education, the blind prepare to join the workforce. KSB has a training facility for these students at the KSB Centre for Adaptive Technology (CAT). “The center equips persons with visual impairment with computer skills, making them proficiently equipped for any job market. The organisation also provides counseling services and orientation and mobilisation skills for newly diagnosed persons with visual impairment,” Kivasu continues.

Being a charitable organisation, KSB has to lobby for its own funds for sustainability. “We have to generate adequate funds every year. I have identified two cash-cows. The first is the eye drops unit and our 3.5 acre piece of land which is currently not fully utilised. We are looking at transforming it and constructing an eight floor office block, a hotel and hostels for training students and teachers,” she says. One of her secrets to success is continuous assessment. “In 2009 when I joined KSB, we had made an assessment of internal issues and identified areas where knots needed to be tightened. We looked at the organisation’s structure, systems and resources. It became much easier to deduce solutions and build sustainability.”

However, the processes to sustainability were not without challenges. “With all the changes introduced, you will come across those who are resistant to change. It’s also hard when sometimes after this assessments, some people lose their jobs.”

Kivasu has a clear vision of where she is headed. She is passionately driven by the urge to make a difference and considers herself confident and aggressive in reaching for her goals.

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Physically blind but forging ahead

Sharon was born seeing but at the age of 10, she was completely blind. She suffers from glaucoma and gradually, from the time she was only months old, her vision began to dim. She could not accept her fate and still had hopes that the situation could be reversed. But those hopes were dashed when one day after a meeting in class, she realised she could no longer see.

In preparation for her condition, she had received training to aid her in the event of complete blindness. So proficient was she that she hid her status from her friends and family for three months. “I did not want people to start seeing me as different. So I carried on as if I could see. Psychologically, I was greatly affected.

I secluded myself, had very low selfesteem and became suicidal.” This was shortlived. A teacher in Sharon’s school always encouraged her to believe in herself. She took up the challenge and performed beyond her expectations. “After this, people treated me as someone with potential, my self esteem was boosted.”

She later joined Moi Girls High School and now, she is about to join Nairobi University to study Law. Talking with her, she seems really driven and has a clear vision of her goals.

She has just completed her computer training at KSB, one which will go a long way in helping her in the intense studies ahead. She has learnt to be self-dependent and sees no huge challenge with finding her way through Nairobi University Campus. “When I move to a new place, I get oriented with the environment by having a friend move me around so as to get a clear picture of the place in my mind. In about three months, I can easily move around with no help.” She intends to remain a role model and she is setting a tough act to follow.

Email: bethkimani@yahoo.com