Part of the disabled persons in Gulu City during a demonstration -Photo by Jesse Johnson James
GULU –UGANDA: Persons with mobility and visual impairments in Gulu are shunning court services at Gulu High Court Circuit Court over what they describe as unfriendly access to the courtrooms.
Gulu High Court building was renovated and new block built in April 2002. In the storey house, one has to climb 23 and 46 steps to reach courtrooms one and two, and three and four respectively. The building has no ramps.
Billy Chris Abola, a person with mobility impairment says that whenever he goes to attend a court session, he is forced to park his tricycle outside the building before crawling to the courtroom and that he often reaches the courtroom when he is dirty and tired.
“Several times when I have a case or I have to go and witness a trial, I have been finding it very hard to climb the staircase. Normally, I have to use my knees to climb up the courtrooms and by the time I reach there, I am always tired and dirty.” Says Abola
Abola revealed that the majority of the persons with disability who have had cases in the court have either been missing the sessions, or reaching late due to the difficulty in climbing the staircase, which he says is an injustice to them.
He says the unfriendly access to the court building has discouraged him from seeking court services since he feels discriminated against by those who should deliver justice.
The 2019 headcount conducted by Gulu Union for Disabled Persons indicates that there are a total of 32,259 persons with disability in Gulu.
Florence Faith Lagum who is visually impaired and a resident of Pece –Laroo Division in Gulu City revealed that in 2016, her uncle attempted to rape her before assaulting her and that she reported the matter to police leading to his arrest and arraigning in court.
Lagum says the accused was given only 6 months’ jail sentence because all through the period of the trial, she would either miss the session or reach very late since she did not have a guide to help her climb the staircase.
Lagum revealed that since then, she has decided not to take legal action against anyone who offends her since she had a bad experience due to accessing the courtrooms, “the fact that they constructed staircase without ramps means they don’t want us [the disabled] to access the court services.”
Maxwell Ojok, a person with physical disability and the former Deputy Speaker of Laroo Division in the then Gulu Municipality explains that persons with mobility and visual impairments find it a bit easy to climb up but coming down is very hard because those with mobility impairment would have all their weights in their chest while those with visual impairment would have wild imaginations making them prone to falling
Ojok says he now follows court proceedings through news bulletins and that they have decided to let minor offenders against their colleagues go scot-free, “If something happens to our colleagues and the matter is taken to court, we will wait and follow it up from the media, which is now second hand information.”
Gulu High Court is not the only storied building without ramps in Gulu city, others include the Gulu District Administration Block, Aswa River Region Police Headquarters as well as hotels.
At Gulu District Administration Block, one has to climb 20 steps to reach the Chief Administration Officer’s office and 20 more steps to reach the District Chairperson’s office.
Ojok says in 2018, one of their colleagues with mobility impairment fell and broke his arms while climbing the staircase to meet the then Gulu District Chairman Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, something he says prompted them to petition the District to install ramps at the story building.
Ojok appeals to the government to intervene by ordering for all storied buildings across the country to have ramps installed in them for easy access by persons with disability.
“I am also appealing to the government to issue directives to the engineering department so that they plan for everyone including the persons with disabilities.” Ojok cries out.
Francis Dawa Matenga, the Gulu Chief Magistrate who also doubles as the Assistant Registrar of Gulu High Court says whenever there is a case involving a person with mobility or visual impairment, the trial would be shifted downstairs.
Carolyn Adong, the Gulu City Councilor representing persons with disability revealed that the past leadership of Gulu District and the Court had agreed that trials should be conducted in down courtrooms for cases which involve a disabled person. She says she will follow up to find out if court is honoring the agreement.
In 2019, the then Chief Registrar of the Courts of Judicature –Esta Nambayo made a commitment that all courthouses across the country shall have ramps installed in them to ease the movement of persons with disabilities.
Jameson Karemani, the Judiciary Spokesperson says the old courthouses across the country still have no ramps installed in them but that the newly constructed courthouses have ramps. He also added that the Ministry of Justice is also in the process of recruiting sign language interpreters to be deployed in all courts across the country.