Breaking down the barriers of disability through beekeeping

“People would ask, how can a blind person keep bees?”

Since 2006, Jennifer has been unable to see. “At first, this was incredibly difficult to accept,” she told me during my visit in August 2019, “but now I’m  finally coming to terms with it.”

As a widower with young children, her independence was everything to her.

But when she became visually impaired, she could no longer move freely around the house, help get her children ready for school, or work to provide for the family.

These were heavy burdens for someone who had been unexpectedly thrust into the role of head of the household.

“When I first met Jennifer, I was amazed by the progress, courage and resolve that she has demonstrated with her beekeeping  over the last few years.”

Sean Lawson, BfD

Jennifer is one of fifteen severely visually impaired beneficiaries involved in a project that  Bees for Development  are running in partnership with The Uganda National Apiculture Development Organisation (TUNADO).

Who is the beekeeper?

Jennifer was skeptical at first. “When I was first approached by Hive Uganda (One of the partners involved in this project), I thought to myself, how can someone who is visually impaired be a beekeeper?”  

This mindset is not uncommon amongst people with visual impairments, who sometimes feel as though there is very little that they can contribute, or feel they are an encumbrance to their families.

This led me to rethink what it means to be a beekeeper. What makes someone a beekeeper?

In the Europe and elsewhere, people tend to purchase hives at great expense, whereas beekeepers in Uganda often make their own hives.

Is one more of a beekeeper than the other?

Ultimately, keeping bees is about making decisions: what is best for your bees? How can you care for them? When should you harvest?

Being physically able to build a hive or lift it onto its stand is not as important as we might think.

Nobody would dispute that Francois Huber, one of the 19th century’s greatest entomologists, was a beekeeper, despite not being able to see.

Although Jennifer works closely with her father and her bees are on his land, she is the key decision maker when it comes to managing the hives and ensuring that the bees thrive.

Jennifer has help, but her helper merely assists her through her activities and physically helps when needed rather than instructing her.

Trustworthy helpers are important and necessary in some areas, but it is the beekeeper that makes all of the decisions regarding their beekeeping activities.

For example, the beekeeper instructs their helper on when they should inspect their hives,  how they want their apiary set up, and where they will sell the honey or beeswax  and  for what price.

Accessing her own hives; listening to the sound of the bees; assessing the condition of her apiary: all these activities are possible for Jennifer since her training in establishing an apiary that best facilitates her movements.

She’s been trained to arrange an apiary with well-spaced,  correctly  orientated  hives and, with the help of her family, install a new mobility string line to give her the freedom of independent movement around her hives.

Disability Inclusive

Bees for Development are pioneering an inclusive approach to working with beekeepers and reaching the most marginalised communities, demonstrating to mainstream organisations in this sector that inclusivity is not only possible but necessary and important.

While the physical difficulties presented by disability are more obvious, it’s hard to quantify the mental and social effects of living with a disability.

With visual impairment comes with the social stigma of being disregarded and overlooked in the community, and this often takes its toll on the self-esteem and self-worth of visually impaired individuals.

The Beekeeping to Economically Empower People with Disabilities Project (BEEPWD) aims to break down these barriers and change perceptions in relevant and accessible ways, consulting the visually impaired in focus groups and asking them to develop appropriate training materials, for example, visual learning aids for Deaf beekeepers and audio guides for the visually impaired.

It might be asked: why the focus on the Deaf and visually impaired, as opposed to say, an amputee?

Being Deaf or visually impaired leaves people with seemingly insurmountable communication barriers that require that extra bit of help to start beekeeping, be that accessing appropriate training materials, and even getting to training events in the first place.

“I can accept who I am”

Just as it’s difficult to quantify the negative mental and social effects of disability, so too, is it hard to measure precisely the positive effects of feeling empowered and gaining a sense of greater respect among other members of the family and community.

Jennifer feels a great sense of satisfaction from being a source of advice and expertise in her field. She is sought out by others in the community for her knowledge and inspires those who may perceive their disabilities as a hindrance to success in ventures of this kind.

Jennifer welcomes visits to her apiary so that other visually impaired people realise that beekeeping is possible for them.

She plans to add value to her beeswax products, including harvesting propolis and producing cosmetics from beeswax, and wants to expand her apiary. “I can accept who I am”, she said with quiet confidence.

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