Development’s Cinderella? Why does the aid industry ignore disabled people?

October 14, 2011 11 By admin

This is a guest post from Tim Wainwright, an Exfam (ex-Oxfam) friend who now runs ADD International, an NGO working on disability Tim Wainwrightand development. An edited version appeared yesterday on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog.

It really does puzzle me. Why does so much of mainstream development’s resources, research, campaigning efforts and attention ignore disabled people?

Around 1 in 7 of the world’s population – 1 billion people – are disabled. Few extended families will not have a child, a parent, or a grandparent who is disabled. And disabled people will certainly be a significant proportion of the estimated 300 million plus chronically poor stuck ‘below the line’ even if the MDGs succeed in halving poverty by 2015. This is because disability can trap individuals and their families in poverty – and living in poverty also means you’re far more likely to be born disabled or to become disabled. The figures bear this out: within this group there are staggering levels of unemployment (80-90%), literacy rates as low as 3%, and one of every three children not in school are disabled. This is before we even begin to consider the huge number of people whose lives are affected by disability – such as a child who has to leave school when her father becomes disabled through an accident at work.

Talk to any disabled person about their experiences and they will soon tell you about the assumptions and discrimination they face in all areas of life. Just this week I spoke to Said in Tanzania, a young man who is dealing not only with the problems of visual impairment, but also the fear and rejection of his family and community. As a child his relatives refused to buy him a uniform so he could go to school, telling him ‘You are like a dead person to us’.

It is often these negative attitudes that make it harder for disabled people to access their basic rights and to have a voice within their families and communities – let alone at the policymaking level. Our long experience of working with organizations of disabled people has demonstrated, time and again, the powerful difference that disabled people can make by coming together and challenging the assumptions and discrimination which hold them back. This change is going on at all levels – from the grassroots, where activists like Said seek out other disabled people in the community and mentor them in tackling discrimination and accessing opportunities – to the policymaking level, where national disability movements campaign for disability legislation and practical policies to ensure that legislation is implemented.

This is what disabled people are doing. But where are these issues in the mainstream? The Education MDG (the only MDG using the word ‘inclusive’), has a 100% target of school attendance. Yet many education programmes (including large multidonor trust funds) don’t check if disabled children are being reached by their work.

There are exceptions. Some big donors and INGOs have ‘disability units’ and make grants to disabled people – but might not mention that this makes up a tiny percentage of their overall funding. Some have gone further – many Scandinavian donors have excellent policies, and USAID and AusAID have both prioritised disability in helpful ways – as well as admitting they have a way to go. Prior to its closure this year, World Vision’s disability mainstreaming unit published useful materials. But overall, coverage is very thin.

Disabled people appear to be in the same position in the development debate as women were 20 years ago. Not employed by the development industry, not seen and so not reached. I am not suggesting all development work is now gender-sensitised, but compared to disabled people, women do nowadays at least seem to count, and to be counted.

Disabled women are doubly discriminated against. At ADD International we support disabled women to organise and successfully challenge gender based violence (2-3 times higher than for non-disabled women) or to campaign on education where the 3% levels of literacy sink to the shocking level of 1% for disabled women.

DPOs organizationI have heard of people in very senior positions in international development saying ‘we do poverty, not disability’. When I worked in the mainstream, there was a sense of competition between development workers who managed to focus their work on the most remote tribal village, to reach the most excluded minority group. Disabled people, particularly women, are probably the poorest and most excluded group there is – but for some reason don’t seem to attract the same level of attention.

It’s true that disabled people are more likely to be economically inactive; many will have lacked food, clothing or access to education from an early age. But this can be overcome – at ADD we have seen many times over how, with support, disabled people can overcome barriers and establish successful small businesses.

So what is it that stops the vast majority of development professionals thinking about this group of people? Is it possible that most still perceive disabled people as a ‘special interest group’, which organisations may or may not take an interest in? Perhaps women in development were once seen in this way – before an understanding of gender issues became mainstream. Our society might now be less patriarchal but are we still living in an ‘ability-archy’?

My challenge to the mainstream is this: Would it be so difficult to put women and disabled people at the heart of everything you do? Employ representative numbers of disabled people in your teams? Make all your offices accessible? Ensure your development work involves and benefits disabled people equally?

Many people think this would cost the earth – but it doesn’t – WaterAid recently published the results of a study in Ethiopia showing that delivering water and sanitation in an accessible way only costs 2-3% more.

I have spent many years working in mainstream development. I now run a disability focussed organisation, and can tell you truthfully that I have never been so inspired by what a particularly challenged group of people are able to achieve, when they are empowered to organise, form self help groups, understand their rights, and have the opportunity to take control of their own lives. I don’t believe disabled people need a non-disabled Prince Charming – they just need an invitation to the ball.

And here’s a 14 minute ADD video to back up Tim’s arguments: