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Disability in developing countries

By tackling stigma, establishing inclusive education and consulting those affected, people with disabilities living in developing countries can realise their potential
By tackling stigma, establishing inclusive education and consulting those affected, people with disabilities living in developing countries can realise their potential

In a recent report on disability, Stephen Hawking said, “Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who... never get the chance to shine.” In this week's guest blog, Isabelle considers the causes and impact of disability in the developing world, and what can be done to bring about change.

Living with a disability can be difficult enough as it is; add poverty to the equation and the hardships increase. In Africa, a continent dominated by developing countries, disabled individuals often face serious adversity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 81 million people in Africa are affected by some form of disability. The fact is that here – and in sub-Saharan Africa specifically – the majority of disabled people have inadequate or no access to healthcare, rehabilitation, support and assistance, education, or employment.

Diverse causes

Often, the fundamental cause of disability is poverty itself. For example, mothers in rural areas may not receive sufficient healthcare while pregnant, which impacts the unborn child. Additionally, malnutrition and disease at a very young age cause irreversible impairments. Environmental hazards, natural disasters, dangerous working conditions, and civil conflict are also sources of injuries; many amputees were victims of the landmines they came across, while walking or farming.

Boy receiving physiotherapy in Germany
This boy is receiving physiotherapy. With support like this, people can overcome or adapt to physical disabilities

Many disabilities are not immediately visible – apart from physical ones, there are learning, speech and language, sensory (vision and hearing), and psychiatric disorders. Since disabled people often require special care and facilities, poverty compounds the problem because underprivileged populations will not receive what they need to look after themselves. This is why being disabled not only affects the individual, but also the family and friends who take care of them, sometimes while working full-time.

Coming from one of the least-developed countries in the world, Mozambique, it’s troubling to see the difficulties that people with disabilities face here. The elderly particularly need assistance. In the city centre, there’s an unaided older woman – with a spine that’s almost bent in half – who regularly begs at car windows during traffic jams. Recently I saw a blind senior man, alone and faltering on a busy street, feeling his way around moving vehicles, stray animals, and street poles. What’s disturbing is that the people around him stared and drew back as his hands reached out to find support.

Stigma and discrimination

The latter case highlights discrimination by those who are not disabled. Unfortunately, in some cultures here, a disability is viewed as a curse or the result of witchcraft. This makes some families hide affected children, further leading to social stigma. 10% of disabled people in Africa are children of school-going age, and only a tiny fraction of them are enrolled in school. Children with disabilities are at higher risk of violence, confinement, and abandonment. This in turn suggests that disabilities are not well-researched or defined in some developing nations, where they are treated as abnormal or something to fear.

A recent article in The Guardian pointed out that disabled people in these countries ‘don’t count’. Millions of them are and will remain invisible until international efforts are put in place to improve data collection on disability. Gaps, inconsistencies, and conflicting definitions have created unreliable global disability data. The problem is that without accurate statistics and categorisation, it is easy to overlook groups of people who should be included in the planning and implementation of development programmes.

Suggested improvements to data collection include: adopting a single set of disability measures to serve as a benchmark for censuses, surveys, etc., and incorporating a disability strategy into the UK’s development programmes. Undertaking and promoting research in these areas would also be a great benefit, subsequently conveying the results or findings to relevant groups in developing regions: the actual people who have disabilities, non-profit organisations (NPOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and governments.

Education, training and consultation

Two boys at the Children's Village in Khajuri Kalan
Some families hide children with disabilities due to social stigma, but if stigma is overcome, disability does not have to be a barrier to participation in society

At a more specific level, establishing inclusive education is essential. We need to equip schools for various kinds of disabilities, providing learning materials in Braille, wheelchair-friendly classes and toilets, specially trained tutors and teachers, breaks and longer times during tests and lessons for those with learning difficulties, allowances for medicated students (with anxiety or depression, for example), and funds for mobility aids, support services, and assistive technologies (like voice synthesizers).

There are several other general measures which could help create employment opportunities, including training programmes, placement services, and anti-discrimination regulations. The media could also be utilised to provide accurate information on disabilities and spread awareness to promote acceptance and understanding. And, where possible, early identification and intervention of medical conditions to prevent further disabilities.

Let’s not forget that when strategizing and formulating policies, people with disabilities need to be consulted and involved in these processes. I briefly worked with an NPO from Pakistan. It’s an organisation focusing on under-represented communities, and it’s run by two people who are visually impaired. That’s important to note because they use experiences of the challenges they faced to help others in similar situations. Ultimately, disabled people are the ones who have more insight into their conditions, and consequently they should be encouraged to communicate their needs to improve current and future plans.

A chance to shine

In a WHO and World Bank report on disability, Professor Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist with motor neurone disease, says, “… we have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities. Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education and employment, and never get the chance to shine.”

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