African Disability Studies Comes of Age

Disability and Social Justice in Kenya: Scholars, Policymakers, and Activists in Conversation. 2022. Edited by Nina Berman and Rebecca Monteleone. Ann Arbor, MI.: University of Michigan Press. Pp. 313, paperback $34.95, ISBN 978-0472055357.

In 2014 Leslie Swartz, a South African psychologist and disability scholar wrote: “We may not yet be at a stage where we can claim that disability research in sub-Saharan Africa has come of age, but it is probably fair to say that we are in a process of growing up and are starting to be seen as growing up.” In this essay I argue that, a decade after Swartz’s claim, African disability studies has finally come of age. I base my general argument on the three anthologies published recently on the subject of African disability, drawing most of my specific points from Berman and Monteleone’s Disability and Social Justice in Kenya, of which this essay is also a review.

According to the African Studies Center website at Leiden University (, official estimates for Africans living with disabilities in the early 2000s ranged from a low 80 million to a high 300 million. Compared to the authoritative survey by the World Health Organization (WHO), which established the prevalence of disability worldwide at fifteen percent (Officer and Posarac 2011, p. 29), the first figure provided by Leiden University falls far below the global consensus, while the second is considerably much higher. Across Africa, as in the rest of the Global South, marginalization of persons with disabilities manifests itself in part through the dearth of relevant research, including shoddy or inconsistent statistical data. In the academy, such a low prioritization operates on the rationale of ableist colonial epistemology, or Eurocentrism, which serves as a gatekeeper against research agendas that question the traditional hierarchies of power and knowledge. Not surprisingly, even if disability studies continues to be incorporated in the curricula by a growing number of African universities, few institutions outside South Africa offer full-fledged specialization in the field. The two pan-African periodicals on disability (the African Journal of Disability and the African Disability Rights Research Yearbook) are also based in South Africa, again making the post-Apartheid country an exception to the rule.Thus, beyond scattered scholarly articles and exceptional book-long publications, African disability literature would long remain fragmented, anecdotal, and ethnographic at best, often influenced by colonial, cultural, and medical worldviews.

It is against this backdrop that the release of three anthologies in recent years (Falola and Hamel 2021, Grischow and Mfoafo-M’Carthy 2022, and Berman and Monteleone 2022) is of milestone significance. Published by major academic presses in North America and with chapter contributions by over forty authors, the works, along with a growing number of journal articles, herald the beginning of a meaningful dialogue between mainstream African studies and the fast-growing field of disability studies globally. In this review essay I will take a stock of one of the three anthologies: Disability and Social Justice in Kenya, by Berman and Monteleone. To do justice to my coming-of-age argument, I will start with a brief sketch of the two other works: Disability in Africa, by Falola and Hamel, as well as Disability Rights and Inclusiveness in Africa, by Grischow and Mfoafo-M’Carthy. Then, I will return to Disability and Social Justice in Kenya, taking a critical look at its embrace of cultural analysis as the African equivalent of the social model. In the final paragraphs, the reason for my comparative approach becomes more obvious. When read as a complementary set, the three anthologies present a fresh breath of critical scholarship that departs from earlier ethnographic preoccupations, which in turn demonstrates how much African disability studies has evolved since the 2014 reflection essay by Swartz.

Edited by the renowned Africanist Toyin Falola and Ph.D. candidate Nick Hamel, Disability in Africa set the stage. Published in the summer of 2021 at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Covid pandemic, the anthology opened with a laudatory call for a new type of engagement with Africa’s most marginalized. “Among the most prominent challenges to disabled Africans are indigenous, colonial, and postcolonial stigmas,” the editors declared. Additional hindrances included “legacies of armed conflict, dense urban zones, vast rural areas, epidemiological risks, misplaced governmental and humanitarian priorities, as well as financial exploitation and underdevelopment” (p. 1).

Subsequent chapters did not consistently live up to this bold antiracist, anti-ableist manifesto. A controversial contribution by Mary Nyangweso, for example, began with a sensational story about the “thousands” of disabled Ugandans who were rounded up and drowned in Lake Victoria by government police (pp. 116-117), taken from a newspaper report that the author accepted at face value and even used it for critiquing local culture and religion from a Eurocentric point of view. Overall, however, Falola and Hamel made sure their selections reflected multiple indigenous perspectives, with most of their nineteen chapters addressing diverse and contemporary themes such as public health, socioeconomics, literature, sports, gender, and activism.

Barely a year after the release of Disability in Africa another anthology followed with a similar title: Disability Rights and Inclusiveness in Africa, edited by Jeff Grischow and Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy. Here, too, voices of African scholars featured dominantly. Unlike Hamel and Falola, however, Grischow and Mfoafo-M’Carthy adopted a metanarrative: the significance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in promoting the causes of human rights in Africa. Not surprisingly, their volume began with an introductory chapter on the history of events leading up to the 2006 treaty, which emerged out of several decades of relentless international activism by stakeholders. In the ten chapters that followed, contributors interrogated the transformative impact of the human rights instrument on the ground, paying particular attention to topics such as education, gender equality, civic participation, physical well-being, and access to social and economic resources.

Considering that none of the above editors were specialists in disability studies, it came as no surprise that they chose a generalist approach, focusing on breadth instead of depth or complexity. This is where Nina Berman and Rebecca Monteleone make a timely intervention. Their Disability and Social Justice in Kenya, also published in 2022, is the first African country study by a North American university press to employ critical disability perspective. Unlike the aforementioned anthologies with broad continental brushstrokes, it builds directly on the editors’ disciplinary expertise enhanced by years of sustained professional engagement.

From the outset, an elaborate and theoretically informed introductory chapter distinguishes Disability and Social Justice in Kenya. Overviews of activism history, milestone legislations, and literature review draw a dynamic picture of agency and representation. An epilogue, again by the editors, concludes the book with recommendations and provocative thoughts for further research.

The book’s fourteen chapters are organized in four parts. Part one, “From Human Rights to Disability Rights,” draws attention to the contradiction between the sad state of disability affairs on the ground and the vibrant history of disability rights activism that has been the driving force behind positive legal reforms. Part two, “Access and Inclusion,” shows how millions of Kenyans continue to be shut out from the economy, thanks to hastily planned development projects in which the needs of persons with disabilities have not been factored. Digressing from the dull picture drawn thus far, the chapters in part three, “Media and Education,” assess the progress that has been made in the delivery of “special needs education” since the country’s independence in 1963. Part four, “Stigma and Culture,” reverts to the less original conversation on traditional belief systems, or culture, as a major hindrance to social change in Kenya. The book wraps up with an epilogue, a prescriptive section in which Berman and Monteleone identify topics for further research: the impact of culture, language, and ethnicity on disability construction, and their concomitant effects on politics and grassroots activism.

An anthology of this nature juggling diverse contributions is bound to entertain conflicting interpretations. Monteleone’s analysis in chapter four of the potentially life-denying feature of modern genetics, or “new eugenics,” makes good use of critical disability perspectives at the global level. It demonstrates how the scientific community, with little consciousness of its own ableist privilege, continues to question the worth of disabled lives regardless of race and nationality. Theodoto Ressa’s critique of Kenyan infrastructure investments in the next chapter, supported by photographic evidence of wheelchair inaccessible roads and bridges, is another thoughtful contribution. “Dis-citizenship,” a term he borrowed from Richard Devlin and Dianne Pothier’s 2006 essay, effectively captures the planning and execution of public works in Kenya with little attention to accessibility; his argument resonates with Michael Oliver’s classic portrait of the disabled as a socially disenfranchised minority group.

In contrast, the book’s last chapter by Cynthia Bauer, founder and CEO of the U.S.-based NGO Kupenda, stands out for its uncritical embrace of the charity model. Using the work of her organization as a point of departure, Bauer juxtaposes what she believes is the life-nurturing ethos of the global North against the culture of infanticide that she insists is a widespread practice among Africans. In chapter 11, likewise, Lubna Mazrui and Margaret Murugami anchor their vision for a more inclusive Kenyan educational system on a communitarian model borrowed from Australia. Their discussion, which does not even in passing acknowledge the virtues of the continental African concept of ubuntu—broadly speaking, an indigenous philosophy of interconnectedness between people and within communities—stands in stark contrast to the editors’ call for the “need to decenter the Global North on all stages of research and publication” (p. 298).

In terms of significance to the field at large, Disability and Social Justice in Kenya represents both transformation and continuity. Until recently, assumptions about disability in Africa were often derived from subjective ethnographic studies. Shifting away from that, the two chapters by Patrick Onyango and Fred Omondi in part one focus on legislative and constitutional frameworks, embracing a more contemporary and universally recognizable discourse on rights and self-representation. This dovetails with the empirically grounded chapters on gender and inclusive education, which provide qualitative and quantitative data with which to monitor government commitments and overall national progress. Scattered anecdotes of lived experience, including the autobiographical chapter by Christopher Odinga, a self-taught sculptor and community organizer, also speak to a new trend of engaged and participatory scholarship, the antidote to a long history of objectification and voicelessness.

While belief systems, stereotypes, and superstitions have informed the evolution of disability worldviews globally, it is mostly in the African context where they still constitute a dominant theme in the literature. As the very heading “Stigma and Culture” indicates, the closing section of Disability and Social Justice in Kenya represents a major continuity in this respect. Its three ethnographic chapters articulate the book’s overarching conceptual framework, a “cultural model of disability,” which Berman and Monteleone endorse as the African equivalent of the social model. They thus write, “The cultural model provides an entry point into theorizing about disability by recognizing that many ways of thinking about disability—from a spiritual curse to a biomedical phenomenon to social stigmatization—compete and cohere in specific, situated cultural contexts” (p. 18).

No doubt that Berman and Monteleone’s “cultural model” will continue to resonate among some scholars. At best, it will be used to re-examine past ethnographic praxes, whose understanding of disability in terms of ethnic cosmology was influenced by the old colonial trope of primal Africa. Beyond that, Eurocentric assumptions of African societies as the cultural other are fast changing, especially at a time when traditional human binaries continue to be challenged at various levels. Moreover, when seen from disabled Africans’ point of view, the cultural analysis is neither counterhegemonic nor emancipatory. In fact, if one invokes Shaun Grech’s theorization of disability through a Global South perspective, cultural arguments about disability are bound to project inward, or localize, the externally induced multidimensional forms of oppression, whitewashing the long history of colonial and neocolonial acts of violence that continue to be a major source of physical and mental debility (Grech 2015).

Despite such criticisms, the “cultural model” is an answer to a missing theoretical framework in African disability studies, a concern that the other anthologies also find imperative to address. In fact, the first section in Falola and Hamel after introduction bears the heading “Theorizing Disability in Africa.” It opens with Maria Berghs’s contribution (pp. 75-90), in which she establishes an emancipatory rationale for African disability studies through the humanistic ethos of ubuntu. Grischow and Mfoafo-M’Carthy also premise their volume on the essay by Bonny Ibhawoh (pp. 21-39), in which a similar liberationist discourse is imagined through the communitarian values of ubuntu. According to Berghs and Ibhawoh, ubuntu’s appeal lies in its homegrown principles of human interdependence to which many African traditions relate, a holistic social well-being that is in stark contrast to the cutthroat values of capitalism and its celebration of competition and individualism.

Yet, as a cultural worldview specific to an era, ubuntu has limitations. Notwithstanding its richly instructive moral and spiritual guidance, ubuntu speaks primarily to the social ethics of premodern times that colonialism, world religions, and urbanization have long since eroded. This renders the search for a more usable continental framework far from over, and this is where my own contribution to Falola and Hamel (pp. 91-114) becomes relevant. I argue that socio-economic forces are what fundamentally shape cultural practices. This explains why sedentary agriculturalists whether in eastern, southern, or western Africa, in contrast to their pastoralist neighbors, share a similar cosmology of disability, for instance. Studying the coping mechanisms associated with the various African modes of production, or what one may refer to as the socio-economic model, thus leads to a clearer understanding of how distinct disability worldviews, including ubuntu, are produced, modified, and even transformed.

Finally, returning to my original coming-of-age thesis, Disability and Social Justice in Kenya is a ground-breaking work. Its timely appearance in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, along with two other anthologies, raises further the international profile of African disability studies. Among its subtle merits, the book builds on the complementary strengths of its editors. Monteleone’s Ph.D. is in critical disability studies, and Berman is a senior scholar on German and African relations. Although, as middle-class white women based in North American higher institutions, the editors recognize a certain subjectivity and unconscious biases, their chapter collections draw on widely diverse voices. Female scholars are well represented, most of the contributors are Africans, and lived experiences lend credibility to legitimate African agency. In short, Disability and Social Justice in Kenya is a seminal and timely work, heralding a two-way conversation between Africanists and their global counterparts on the fast-evolving field of critical disability studies.


Berghs, Maria. 2021. “An African Ethics of Social Well-Being: Understanding Disability and Public Health.” In Disability in Africa, edited by Toyin Falola and Nick Hamel, 75-90. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Berman, Nina and Rebecca Monteleone, eds. 2022. Disability and Social Justice in Kenya: Scholars, Policymakers, and Activists in Conversation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Falola, Toyin and Nick Hamel, eds. 2021. Disability in Africa: Inclusion, Care, and the Ethics of Humanity. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Gebrekidan, Fikru. 2021. “Rethinking African Disability Studies: From the Cultural-Deficit Model to a Socio-Economic Explanation.” In Disability in Africa, edited by Toyin Falola and Nick Hamel, 91-114. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Grech, Shaun. 2015. “Decolonising Eurocentric Disability Studies: Why Colonialism Matters in the Disability and Global South Debate.” Social Identities 21, no. 1: 6-21.

Grischow, Jeff D. and Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy, eds. 2022. Disability Rights and Inclusiveness in Africa: The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Challenges and Change. Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer.

Ibhawoh, Bonny. 2022. “Framing Disability Rights within African Human Rights Movements.” In Disability Rights and Inclusiveness in Africa, edited by Jeff Grischow and Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy, 21-39. Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer.

Nyangweso, Mary. 2021. “Disability in Africa: A Cultural/Religious Perspective.” In Disability in Africa, edited by Toyin Falola and Nick Hamel, 115-136. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Officer, Alana and Aleksandra Posarac, et al eds. 2011. World Report on Disability. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Swartz, Leslie. 2014. “Five Challenges for Disability-Related Research in Sub-Saharan Africa.” African Journal of Disability 3, no. 2: 1-6.

Fikru Gebrekidan received his PhD in African History, with a minor in Comparative Black History, from Michigan State University in 2001. He now teaches in the Department of History at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada. His research publications focus on Ethiopian history, Pan-African intellectual history, and African disability history.

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