Poor, Disabled and Shut Out

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December 3, 2002

Four hundred million disabled people live in the world's developing countries. All too often their lives go hand in hand with poverty, isolation and despair. As the world marks the International Day of Disabled Persons today, we need to heed those who are not listened to within their societies, whose disabilities are often used against them to keep them from going to school, finding work or being visible in their own neighborhoods.

A blind woman in Eastern Europe, with an unmistakable tone of hopelessness, captures the harsh reality of living with disability in this way: "We depend on everyone; no one wants us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of."

As if this isolation were not injurious enough, research shows that disabled people are also more likely than other people to live in grinding poverty. More than 1.3 billion people worldwide struggle to exist on less than $1 a day, and the disabled in their countries live at the bottom of the pile.

Disability is not rare. It can affect 10 percent to 20 percent of a country's population, a percentage that is expected to grow because of poor health care and nutrition early in life, growing elderly populations and violent civil conflicts.

Malnutrition and drinking bad water can rob people of their sight. Earthquakes and other natural disasters take their toll. HIV/AIDS, measles, polio, traffic accidents, work injuries, discarded explosives, mothers who abuse drugs during pregnancy -- all can ravage people's hearing and their intellectual and emotional senses and wreck limbs and bodies, relegating millions to the margins of society. The results can be devastating, both to the individuals and to national economies.

Unless disabled people are brought into the development mainstream, it will be impossible to cut poverty in half by 2015 or to give every girl and boy the chance to achieve a primary education by the same date -- goals agreed to by more than 180 world leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000.

If development is about bringing excluded people into society, then disabled people belong in schools, in legislatures, at work, on buses, at the theater and everywhere else that those who are not disabled take for granted. We should acknowledge that disability is an enduring feature of all economies, rich and poor. One important thing to keep in mind: Most disabilities are preventable; few people among the 400 million living with disabilities were born that way.

Disability needs to be brought into the development mainstream through a dynamic alliance of the U.N. system, governments, agencies such as the World Bank, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and other groups worldwide.

For example, through infrastructure projects and policy support for countries trying to reduce poverty and boost economic growth, the World Bank has been amplifying the concerns of disabled people. While applying Western disability standards in most developing countries isn't affordable, poor countries still have options for increasing public access for the disabled. It is not an all-or-nothing situation.

For example, donors and development agencies finance substantial infrastructure projects in developing countries, such as schools and hospitals, streets and paths, and transportation and power systems. They should encourage design features that improve access for all with limited mobility, including disabled people, pregnant women, people carrying baggage, the elderly and others. Without infrastructure standards and the enforcement of those standards, inaccessible environments are re-created or maintained. For instance, in the massive reconstruction efforts in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, not one foreign donor stipulated that accessibility codes be applied, although this would have required little or no additional cost. As a result, whole towns, including schools, were rebuilt with barriers to disabled people. Encouraging appropriate design standards is essential to reducing, and eventually eliminating, poverty in developing countries.

In addition, we need more accurate data and research and better communication so disabled people know what resources are available to help them find work or get an education.

Addressing disability is a significant part of reducing poverty. Bringing disabled people out of the corners and back alleys of society, and empowering them to thrive in the bustling center of national life, will do much to improve the lives of many from among the poorest of the poor around the world.


James D. Wolfensohn