By Wen Huang
Ronald Kasule caught polio when he was 3 years old. The disease left him paralyzed. Seeing that the boy could neither walk nor feed himself, his father intended to end his son’s life before he became a burden to the family. “My parents had fierce arguments over me,” he recalls. “In the end, my mother prevailed. She made the tough decision of divorcing my father to save my life.”
The family lived in Kisubi, a village about 60 miles southwest of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. His mother sold practically everything the family owned to search for a cure. When treatment failed, she came up with many creative ways to train her son at home so he could live independently. But when Kasule reached school age, he had no means of attending the distant school. One day, he pleaded with his mother until she relented and allowed him to go.
“With a book in my hand, I went with my siblings,” Kasule says. “But they ran very fast, and I could only crawl slowly on a gravel road. Before long, a rain came down. I had to turn around and go home. The rain had damaged my book. From then on, I voluntarily gave up the idea of schooling.”
In 1986, when Kasule was 7, rebel groups waged a civil war against the new Ugandan government. His village was under frequent attacks by rebel soldiers. “One night, before soldiers raided our village, my mother had to escape with my siblings without me because I was a big boy, and she wouldn’t be able to carry me. So, I was left alone in the house, with the door wide open.” Fortunately, the soldiers never entered the house.
Ronald Kasule with his mother. Photo Courtesy of Ronald Kasule.
When soldiers terrorized the community during the day, his mother would carry him to the nearby woods and hide him behind a bush. “She would say, ‘Ronald, if I survive, I will come back to get you, but if I don’t, God will keep you,’” says Kasule. “I would lie quietly, in fear until my mother came at night.”
These traumatic experiences motivated him in later years to apply for a Rotary Peace Fellowship. “A person with a disability cannot survive without peace,” he says.
As the civil war continued, Kasule and his family deserted their home and slept in the woods. They later moved to another region and stayed with an uncle, a schoolteacher who lived on campus. The relocation enabled Kasule to fulfill his childhood dream of attending school.
Kasule studied hard and excelled in his class. The charity organization ActionAid gave him his first wheelchair and sent him to study at Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped.
For Kasule, the path to education after the war was paved with frustration. Even though he achieved the best scores in the district, he was denied access to his secondary school of choice after the school found out that he was disabled. “The school insisted that I could not manage without support, yet there was no support available for me,” he says.
Having dropped out of school, he tried to learn shoemaking. At Nkokonjeru Providence Cheshire Home, which provides vocational training to people with disabilities, staff members learned about his academic prowess and encouraged him to resume his studies, later sponsoring his college education.
“I view peace in terms of development,” says Ronald Kasule, pictured here at the Rotary Peace Center in Kampala in 2021.
Image credit: Tobin Jones
“After college, I went back and tried to help people like me in my community to fight for equal access to education and jobs so we can fully participate in social, economic, and political life,” he explains.
Since people with disabilities in Uganda often lack access to reproductive health education, Kasule says that many of them are sterilized without their knowledge because some people believe that people with disabilities should not have children. So after graduation, Kasule co-founded Access for Action Uganda, an organization advocating for inclusive policies to aid people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. He later served as the honorary council representative in a district government to advocate for the rights of constituents with disabilities.
Making up for his lost educational opportunities, Kasule earned a master’s degree and completed several certificate programs, including one in sustainable development and global justice from the University of Antwerp in Belgium and another in social protection and inclusion of people with disabilities from Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences in Germany.
In 2018, Kasule was selected for a U.S. State Department-sponsored fellowship in inclusive disability employment. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit private and public initiatives that promote employment for people with disabilities.
“When I came back, I was supposed to implement what I had learned,” he says. “I had many ideas but did not know how to start.” While figuring out solutions, he came across news about the new Rotary Peace Center in Kampala.
In February 2021, Kasule joined the inaugural class of 15 peace fellows from 11 countries at the Rotary Peace Center at Makerere University to study peacebuilding and conflict resolution. The program strengthened his peacemaking skills, allowing him to traverse Uganda, where he met with social service providers and other peacemakers.
- Diploma in community-based rehabilitation, Kyambogo University, Kampala, 2003
- Bachelor’s in adult and community education, Makerere University, Kampala, 2008
- Master’s in educational planning, economics, and international development, Institute of Education, University of London, 2013
- Rotary Peace Fellowship, Makerere University, Kampala, 2021-22
“During my research, I noticed that more people are now attending universities to gain various skills for supporting persons with disabilities, but after graduation there is no work for them,” he says. “Meanwhile, I have talked to many local companies, but most of them told me that they are not against employing people with disabilities. The challenge is that they do not have the resources.”
In the summer of 2021, Kasule launched an online platform, Diversity Ability Support Network System, that provides information about disability resources, connecting Ugandans with disabilities with social agencies and service providers, such as home care workers, personal aides, and sign language interpreters. At present, he and his colleagues are redesigning the Dasuns platform, incorporating additional web and mobile-based applications and features to make it accessible to more users. Kasule’s goal is to scale Dasuns across Africa.
“We often talk about peace in terms of conflicts,” he says. “But for me, I view peace in terms of development — you cannot be at peace with yourself if you are hungry, you cannot be peaceful when you have no access to the support and resources available within your community. You’ll feel sidelined.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.