“Technology helps me change perceptions of disabled people, like me”
Whether we’re transferring money to a friend or paying our rent, mobile payment platforms allow us to complete previously complex and time-consuming tasks in seconds.
But for Julius Mbura, a visually impaired lawyer, poet and disability rights activist living in Nairobi, Kenya, this technology has freed up more than just his time. M-PESA, a mobile money service established by Vodafone and Safaricom, gives him the tools he needs to lead an independent life.
“Even when I'm buying things in shops, I prefer using M-PESA,” Julius explains. “I order cabs using my phone, and if I'm going to a place where I'm not comfortable, then I use M-PESA to pay the driver. I use it everywhere. I’ve put my trust in the M-PESA app.”
This helps Julius, who lost his sight due to maculopathy, a progressive disease affecting a part of the eye called the macula, to avoid the risk of theft which comes with carrying cash. But it also allows him to keep track of his spending activities, so people can’t easily take advantage of him.
“It’s way safer for me, because I do everything for myself and verify before I press send,” he explains. “This means people can’t say I didn’t pay them, or I paid them less than I was supposed to.”
The everyday challenges Julius faces were intensified when COVID-19 hit. Touching surfaces and interacting with people - two essential ways Julius navigates the world - became dangerous, as they increased his risk of contracting the virus. Using the M-PESA app gives Julius a safe and reliable way to pay without exchanging cash, which can carry virus particles. “I think this is where I’ve appreciated technology the most,” he says.
M-PESA is just one of many technologies that have transformed Julius’s life. In his role as Advocacy Officer at inABLE, an organisation that campaigns for disability rights, he uses a laptop with a screen reader, a form of assistive technology that turns text and image content into speech. His smartphone also uses advanced voiceover technology, which allows him to easily send and receive calls and messages.
Beyond the tasks and obstacles of everyday life, technology has given Julius the freedom to nurture his passions, such as his life-long love for cars. He reviews them by touch and feel on his YouTube channel, which has over 4000 subscribers. “I use technology to go deeper into different manufacturers, different designs, and their inspirations,” he enthuses. “This is the power of the internet. I have everything at my fingertips: any article, any publication.”
For Julius, this isn’t just about informing people about cars. He considers himself privileged to have enjoyed, as he puts it, “the sighted world and the blind universe”, and he uses this to inspire people to appreciate the world around them in new ways. “Even in your own car, there are things that you take for granted. Rather than opening the bonnet and looking inside, just listen to it. Listen to the different noises coming from the wheels.”
By teaching other visually impaired people how to use the tools that have helped him, Julius aims to empower others to live free and independent lives. But technology is also a key part of his plan to change mindsets and shift perceptions about disabled people.
“There are misconceptions about disability - people thinking that someone who's blind is a burden to their family," he says. Technology – especially social media – helps him demonstrate what visually impaired people can do. “If people could just see what we’re capable of, then they would appreciate that we are normal people, just like them. We need to get out there and do everything we can to change that mindset.”
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