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Opinions of Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Columnist: Addi, Seth K

Fighting poverty, why excluding the disabled?

By: Seth K Addi

I have been a journalist for the past eleven years. And yet not until 2007 did I think about disability and development all that much. What is much familiar about disability? One may ask.
We know that most of the poor are excluded, marginalized, disempowered. So we can guess that the disabled – defined in this way – are more likely to be poor. But I did not know that so many of the poor were persons with disabilities. A book I sighted not long ago quotes some statistics from the World Bank to suggest that one in five of the poor are affected by disability.

That is staggering. It is doubly staggering that the international development community has, for the most part, ignored this issue. This is shocking because several of the papers in the volume note that when it is assessed, disability is a greater excluder of participation than gender and ethnicity. Despite being one of the more visible manifestations of exclusion, stigma and lack of power, disability is hidden from sight, most of the time, in development research discourses. And yet its study offers the potential of so much learning for everyone working in development.

Worldwide, poverty is the single most pressing issue for millions of people with disabilities. While the United Nations estimates that 10 per cent of the world’s population lives with a disability, the World Bank estimates that one in five of the world’s poorest people are disabled or live in a household with a disabled member. Not only are persons with disabilities therefore twice as likely to live in poverty, but they will often also be among the poorest of the poor. Go into any impoverished urban slum area or walk into any poor rural village and ask the people who live there ‘who is the poorest person in your community’ – you will more than likely be directed to the door of a disabled person.

Poverty is not simply the lack of income; it is a denial of the fundamental freedom and opportunity to develop as a human being. The elimination of poverty lies, in large measure, in the creation of a just society in which all citizens have equal opportunity to develop their full potential. Microfinance is considered an important tool in reaching the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Nevertheless, few people with disabilities have access to microfinance.

Despite these clear links, as a nation, we are only beginning to understand how poverty and disability interact. It is an area that continues to be inadequately understood and significantly under-researched. Without an accurate understanding of the links between poverty and disability, our capacity to know when, where and how to intervene to break these links will be significantly limited. This is all the more problematic because research increasingly shows that poverty and disability are not inevitably linked. Most often, it is not people’s disabilities that block their ability to support themselves and their families adequately. Rather, it is the stigma, discrimination and lack of knowledge or awareness about disability in the surrounding environment that limits their abilities and talents.
The social inclusion model being advocated for by international organisation like the Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and SightSavers International, as I understood it means “ensuring that everyone is included in society rather than excluded”. The social inclusion for persons with disabilities is based on the social model of disability and involves breaking down the barriers in society that prevent their full participation in society. This includes, for instance, promoting positive attitudes and perceptions (e.g. disabled people in politics), modifying the built environment (e.g. ramps in public buildings), providing information in accessible formats (e.g. our website in large print) and making sure that laws and policies support the exercise of full participation and non-discrimination (e.g. employment discrimination laws).
Access to education and employment, an accessible physical environment and changes in legal, social and cultural norms to ensure social inclusion mean that persons with disabilities can be full, participating members of the surrounding community. The risk factors for living with a disability in much of the world today are virtually identical to those risk factors for living in poverty: social marginalisation, lack of access to education and employment, limited political clout and the restricted right to self-determination.

As things are beginning to change, the growing attention to disability has been fostered by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).Coming into force in May 2008, the UNCRPD approaches disability, access and poverty from a rights perspective, broadly confirming that people with disabilities have the same claim to full participation in society as every other citizen. Certainly the UNCRPD has also brought a number of international development organisations and experts to the table, with global disability advocates making a clear and coherent case for why inclusion of disability is a human right. In Ghana, the Ghana Federation of the Disabled (GFD), Mindfreedom Ghana and the Network of Journalists for the Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa-Ghana Chapter (PROMOAFRICA) have team up to seek to the ratification of the UN convention and the passage of the Ghana mental health bill.

Because unless persons with disabilities are included in general international development programmes and policies, none of the Millennium Development Goals will be met, and no society will be able to significantly reduce poverty.

From the outset, it will be prudent that the international development efforts must be undertaken with full inclusion of and consultation with disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) – groups that are run for and by persons with disabilities. The slogan Nothing About Us Without Us is nowhere more important than in international development circles, where organizations that often work at national, regional and global levels need to ensure that groups representing disabled persons are part of the dialogue at all stages.
The purpose of this article is to promote change: to help move policy and practice towards real inclusion and participation of disabled people. Not everyone will agree with what they read in this article, but i hope it provokes critical reflection and renewed urgency in each reader’s contribution to including persons with disabilities in development.
Many of the barriers that persons with disabilities face are related to structures, institutions and policies at national and international levels, so it is important that we advocate for changes that will promote equal opportunities for persons with disabilities.

The author is the general secretary of the Network of Journalists for the Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa (PROMOAFRICA) and the managing editor of the Evening Tribune Newspaper

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