Disability has only recently entered the lexicon of practitioners and policy makers around the world but that has not stopped the topic from exploding on the international stage. This fall alone, disability’s role in development had its own UN High Level meeting at the General Assembly. The 2013 Manhattan Declaration on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities followed this meeting where those involved promised to include disability in development programming and policy. Does all this talk mean there will be major improvements in  addressing the rights and needs of disabled persons in development? It is certainly possible and it would be unfair to discount the progress that has been made. However, a general overview of the challenges the disabled face in the Global South shows how difficult translating grand gestures into local change really is.

First, roughly eighty percent of persons with disabilities reside in the Global South. This is unsurprising given that the majority of conflicts, a major cause of disability, occur in the Global South. Those who survive a conflict may become physically and mentally disabled from direct or indiscriminate use of artillery, landmines and other weapons. A particular gruesome set of examples are the mutilations and amputations by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda that have left scores of victims disabled. Aside from this relationship between conflict and disability, the number of persons with disabilities in the Global South may be due to an underdeveloped society in itself. Extreme inequities in health, education and income can lead to disability when these inequities affect physical and mental health. For example, Those lacking nutrition and vaccines are at risk to develop physical and mental disabilities from diseases as common as malaria.

Like many themes in development, the relationship between poverty and disability is also cyclical. Those with disabilities are far more prone to live and stay in poverty. In the standard of living model used by Cullinan, Gannon and Lyons, the costs of disability on a household create a capability gap that must be addressed to return to the same  standard of living that households without disability enjoy at the same income. Unlike the Irish households in the article, households in the Global South are likely not to even close the gap and suffer far more economic and social costs from a disabled family member. These costs, coupled with cultural and social beliefs, lead to them being undervalued by their communities and far more likely to be victims of violence, theft, discrimination and rape. With norms this hostile to persons with disabilities, it would be unlikely that high level policy at the donor and domestic level can result in more accessible schools and clinics. It is also unlikely that they will be given the priority needed in disaster and conflict situations as well if their lives are perceived as too costly.

While declarations and promises are important, it is important for donor countries to push for considerations about disability at the micro-level. The progress in gender-sensitive development work bodes well for this strategy. There is also a need to explore mechanisms of accountability for leaders who continue to ignore the plight of their disabled citizens. Both of these strategies will also require practitioners and scholars to explore how to reduce the costs of disability and create incentives for governments and local leaders to commit .  Work and research at the local, communal and rural level is drastically needed as these are the areas where disabled persons face the most hardship. Progress in inclusive development will be an uphill battle but it is certainly possible for practitioners, scholars and students to make that hill wheel-chair accessible.


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