Inequality and discrimination are an everyday part of life for people with disabilities, who are extremely vulnerable to poverty, particularly in developing countries. Nonetheless, politicians and development policies do not always adequately recognize the vulnerability and specific needs of people with disabilities.
Disability and invisible vulnerabilities
Disability can affect children born with cerebral palsy, as well as seniors with osteoarthritis or dementia, and even people with diabetes, to some extent. According to the WHO, the health conditions associated with disability can be “visible or invisible; temporary or long term; static, episodic, or degenerating; painful or inconsequential.” The diverse nature of disability means that people not only perceive but also experience their situation very differently, depending on their environment.
From a biopsychosocial perspective, people with disabilities are more affected by their social environment than by their bodies: disability is “a dynamic interaction between a person’s health condition, environmental factors and personal factors.” Inaccessible environments—buildings with no disabled toilets or lifts, computers without screen-reading software, public services that do not offer sign language interpreters—are all sources of disability in the sense that they create a barrier to participation and inclusion for all. These inadequate public spaces, technologies and systems make people with disabilities even more vulnerable to poverty. This issue is all the more serious in countries with weak infrastructure.
Worldwide, 150 million children are living with a disability. They are ten times less likely to receive an education and live an independent adult life. Families are often put under considerable financial strain due to the additional cost of support, especially in poor countries like Malawi. And once people with disabilities reach working age, they face further discrimination in the job market and are at greater risk of unemployment.
In addition, there is a double correlation between disability and poverty. As the Indian economist, philosopher and Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, explains, while disability increases the risk of poverty, poverty can also increase the risk of disability. Factors such as malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, lack of drinking water or sanitation, precarious working and living conditions, trauma, etc., all have the potential to cause disability.
Disability: a cross-cutting development issue
While the Millennium Development Goals did not cover disability per se, this issue has now been addressed in the Sustainable Development Goals. Because disability is a matter of human rights, it has now also become a specific development issue.
Donors, international organizations and NGOs have launched joint initiatives to address disability issues at all levels, and especially in terms of access to essential goods and services. For this response to be effective, further research on disability is required, following the example of the World Bank, and projects must be financed to promote professional inclusion and improve the living conditions of vulnerable people.
For example, the Global Partnership for Education is currently financing and supporting inclusive education policies in Uganda, for the distribution of hearing aids to deaf school children. AFD is financing a number of projects led by Humanity & Inclusion, which also promote professional inclusion.
Other initiatives have been launched, with a focus on access to social protection and health care services for people with disabilities. In South Africa, the government provides specific aid to cover the basic needs of disabled individuals, thus offering a means to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. In Senegal, between 2013 and 2016, work was carried out on the ACCESS project to further integrate disability into the HIV/AIDS response, with the aim of promoting inclusion through prevention programs and providing access to health care for all.
Preventing health risks is another way of addressing disability-related issues. Better health care system management can improve living conditions for people with disabilities and reduce the risk of further disability. Finally, in countries with limited resources, community-based rehabilitation strategies can be deployed to facilitate physical rehabilitation, provide equal opportunities and ultimately, ensure that people with disabilities are better integrated into society.