- Despite significant setbacks, Harunah refused to let go of his dream. After a three-year hiatus from school, he resolved to rejoin O-Level education.
- I am optimistic about my prospects of securing a scholarship for this master’s program in the near future.
- He aspires to obtain a Ph.D. in public health, equipping himself with advanced knowledge and skills that will enable him to contribute to improving healthcare access and outcomes for marginalized populations.
The perception of people born with disabilities varies widely across the world.
While progress has been made in promoting inclusivity and challenging stigmas, prevalent stereotypes and misconceptions still influence societal perceptions.
These perceptions can differ significantly from culture to culture and may not represent the views of every individual.
To Damba Harunah, it is very important to challenge negative perceptions and promote a shift towards a more inclusive and rights-based approach that recognizes the diverse abilities, potential, and contributions of individuals with disabilities.
By promoting awareness and education and creating inclusive environments, we can work towards changing these perceptions and fostering a more inclusive society.
Harunah is the third born in a family of five. Growing up, he wanted to become a doctor.
The intricate workings of the human body fascinated him and he dedicated extra effort to science subjects in school.
However, things took a turn while in O-Level Senior Two when he was diagnosed with malaria. The disease later took a toll on his body, leaving him weak and helpless.
Unfortunately, his family couldn’t afford the expensive medical treatment, and Harunah had to wait several months before seeing a doctor.
By then, it was too late; he had started losing his hearing and eventually became completely deaf.
Despite facing this significant setback, Harunah refused to let go of his dream. After a three-year hiatus from school, he resolved to rejoin O-Level education.
He dedicated himself to his studies and performed exceptionally well in subjects that would pave the way for him to pursue his lifelong dream: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics.
He achieved a Distinction in Biology and Mathematics and a Credit 3 in the rest.
“People would often remind me that they had never seen a deaf doctor in Uganda. The judgment and doubts from others didn’t discourage me; instead, they fueled my desire to become a doctor even more.
Thankfully, when A-Level results were released, I was fortunate enough to secure a government sponsorship for university,” says Harunah.
He was offered a place in Biomedical Laboratory Technology at Makerere University, a course that he embraced and loved deeply.
After his graduation, he pursued internships at various research organizations, including the Uganda Virus Research Institute.
In his role, Harunah actively participated in the diagnostic testing of research participants and analyzed study samples.
From his experience in the field, he also realized that biomedical research alone could bring about significant improvements in the lives of people with disabilities.
“Through firsthand observation, I witnessed the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities, who often encountered marginalization and undervaluation in the workforce.
This experience was not only painful but also made me realize that my professional training and efforts alone were insufficient to address the underlying cultural and moral perceptions surrounding disability in Uganda,” Harunah recollects.
Motivated by this realization, he established the United Persons with Disabilities (UPWDs) with the aim of uniting people with disabilities under a common mission of self-transformation.
“My career goal is to pursue a Master’s in Public Health and continue working at the intersection of health and disability. I aim to contribute towards strengthening our healthcare systems with a focus on promoting health equity.
I am optimistic about my prospects of securing a scholarship for this master’s program in the near future. I am determined to excel in my academic pursuits and make a meaningful impact in the field,” he adds.
As the chairperson of UPWDs, Harunah brings together his collective experience as a biomedical scientist and his passion for empowering individuals with disabilities.
He oversees various aspects of the organization’s operations.
He is responsible for strategic planning, grant writing, and motivating staff and volunteers.
“Additionally, I serve as a Next Generation Youth Leader for the For Youth, By Youth project, a collaboration between the Talloires Network and the MasterCard Foundation.
This initiative aims to develop a comprehensive program for next-generation leaders, with valuable contributions from young leaders like myself.” He adds.
Not without challenges
The nature of his job as the Chairperson of United Persons with Disabilities (UPWDs) presents several challenges, such as the lack of sufficient funding and support.
“As a non-profit organization, securing financial resources to maintain the organization and carry out our projects can be demanding. To address this, I have taken the initiative to explore diverse funding opportunities, including grant writing and engaging in strategic partnerships with like-minded organizations,” says Harunah.
As an organization focused on social entrepreneurship, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic that severely impacted our social businesses, the situation revealed the absence of a supportive system to assist them in recovering from such setbacks.
“It was a turning point for us, emphasizing the importance of having a resilient and supportive social ecosystem that can help counteract such situations in the future,” he confesses.
Harunah attended Bweyogerere C/U Primary School for his primary education and then joined Mukono Comprehensive Secondary for both O and A-level education.
He was later admitted to Makerere University, graduating as a Biomedical Laboratory Technologist in 2020.
While at Makerere University, he won the second runner-up Presenter Prize in the 2018 First Antimicrobial Resistance Stewardship, organized by the School of Biosecurity, Biotechnical, and Laboratory Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
He was also recognized as a young leader with a demonstrable commitment to inclusive civic and youth-centered engagement by the Professional Fellows Program on Inclusive Civic Engagement in Washington, DC, in 2022.
Harunah looks up to Barack Obama, the former President of the United States of America.
“I admire his charismatic personality and vision of empowering young people, particularly in Africa. If given the opportunity, I would ask him for guidance on becoming a great leader.
I would seek his insights on leadership principles, effective communication, and the ability to inspire and motivate others.
I believe his experience and leadership skills would provide valuable lessons and inspiration for my journey of becoming a successful leader,” he confesses.
Between 2018 and 2019, he won the position of Guild Representative Councilor for People with Disabilities.
Due to his distinguished zeal for empowering people with disabilities, he was also appointed as the Minister for Students with Disabilities.
During this period, he achieved numerous developmental milestones, including reshaping the disability policy at the institute.
In July 2019, he joined the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities as a student in their Next Generation Leaders Program, and initially, the engagements were conducted virtually.
Through this opportunity, he was privileged to present at the Talloires Network Leaders Conference (TNLC) and collaborate with the Kettering Foundation.
“I actively participated in the Student Leaders: Learning Deliberative Democracy Exchange program of the Kettering Foundation, which culminated in a physical convening held in Dayton, Ohio, United States later in July 2022.
Continuing my engagement with the Talloires Network, I am currently involved in the “For Youth, By Youth” project,” he says.
After graduating in 2020, he worked on temporary contracts with Makerere University Integrated Biorepository, Mulago National Referral Hospital, and Uganda Virus Research Institute.
“In September 2022, I was awarded the Professional Fellows Program on Inclusive Civic Engagement in recognition of my outstanding achievements with United Persons with Disabilities.
As part of the fellowship, I had the opportunity to return to the United States for a month-long training at the University of Arizona,” Harunah explains.
In November 2022, Harunah was nominated as an executive member of the US Exchange Alumni Council, which oversees and coordinates the activities of alumni from US government-funded global programs.
This prestigious council brings together accomplished individuals who have participated in various US-funded initiatives, fostering a sense of community, collaboration, and lifelong connections.
“Currently, I am actively working at the United Persons with Disabilities organization, implementing the lessons I learned during my fellowship in the United States.
Additionally, I volunteer part-time with the Central Uganda Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Network (CUSBHNET) as their Youth Chairperson, where my role is to mobilize youth engagement in CUSBHNET’s work and activities,” Harunah recollects.
In the next ten years, Harunah’s goal is to advance his professional career and make a meaningful impact in the field of public health.
He aspires to obtain a Ph.D. in public health, equipping himself with advanced knowledge and skills that will enable him to contribute to the improvement of healthcare access and outcomes for marginalized populations.
On his advice to the youths, “Life, as they say, is not a bed of roses. It presents unique challenges to each individual, and my own journey has certainly not been a smooth sail.
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So, if you aspire to walk in my shoes, be prepared to embrace persistence, focus, and unwavering determination in order to achieve your goals,” says Harunah.