The disability and development gap

Is development further disadvantaging people with disabilities? Nora Ellen Groce, Director of the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre at University College London, recently gave a talk to Oxfam staff about development and disability. Here Nora expands on the issues discussed and explains why disability should be mainstreamed in development programming.

While there is still a long way to go, there is little question that global development is on an upward trajectory. According to the UNDP, 700 million fewer people lived in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990 and many countries are transitioning from low- to middle-income status. With the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this progress is set to continue.

However, there is one group that has been consistently left out of these global development gains: people who live with a physical, sensory (i.e. deafness or blindness), intellectual or mental health disability. The World Health Organisation in collaboration with the World Bank recently estimated that 15% of the world’s population – some 1 billion people – live with disabilities that have a direct impact on their daily lives. One household in every four
has a disabled member. 

People with disabilities are consistently among the poorest in many communities. They are not only poorer in economic terms but are also comparatively poorer in many domains – access to health care, education, employment and social inclusion. On top of this, people with disabilities often face stigma and prejudice that severely limits their ability to have a voice in their households and communities.…people with disability are rarely included in development efforts.

Unfortunately, people with disability are rarely included in development efforts. Indeed, disability was not mentioned in any of the Millennium Development Goals, nor their targets or indicators. When disability is considered at all, it is usually as an afterthought – through a limited pilot project or an unsustainable one-off intervention that is not linked to mainstream development efforts.

A key reason for this is that many development practitioners still consider disabled people – if they consider them at all – as objects of charity or as recipients of medical care rather than an impoverished population that is an international development concern. Yet the single greatest problem facing people with disabilities worldwide is poverty. And this poverty affects all. The International Labour Organization estimates the exclusion of people with disabilities which results in avoidable unemployment and marginalisation from participation in society costs nations up to 7%
of their GDP
. Indeed, it is suggested that because of the size and depth of poverty associated with disability, many of the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals will not be met unless the needs of disabled people are included and met. 

Moreover, a new body of research is finding that when people with disabilities are not included in development efforts, they may be falling increasingly behind their non-disabled peers. Leonard Cheshire Disability is examining this phenomena – which we are calling the ‘disability and development gap’ – in our new ESRC poverty alleviation project Bridging the Gap. The study is based on our finding that in the poorest communities there may be comparatively little difference
between people with disabilities and non-disabled people, in terms of access to assets, resources and services.

…the single greatest problem facing people with disabilities worldwide is poverty.In households where there are few material goods and little income, all members of a household may struggle finding enough to eat or enough clothes to wear. In such communities, poverty is a great social leveller. This does not mean that the lives of people with disabilities in these communities are not often more difficult, as they struggle against not only extreme poverty but also against prejudice and stigma, difficulties which are not fully
reflected in economic terms alone.

As the pace of development increases in these communities however, a difference in access to resources and opportunities begins to appear between disabled and non-disabled people if they are not included in development efforts. For example, if no school exists, the life of a child with a disability is little different from her siblings or playmates. If a school is built and every child in the village, except for the disabled child, now attends, that disabled child is at a distinct disadvantage. If a micro-credit scheme helps women raise and market vegetables more
effectively, then disabled women who are considered ‘credit risks’ are often excluded from such schemes, and may lose out while non-disabled neighbours benefit from new knowledge, networks and resources.

The result is not only that people with disabilities may remain poor as the lives of their peers improve, but this poverty is increasingly multidimensional in nature – reflecting lack of access to key resources linked to development efforts: education, better healthcare, increased income, civic engagement. 

Ironically, in some cases, new development initiatives may actually increase barriers if people with disability are not considered and planned for. Inaccessible new buildings and schools, modern transport systems built without ramps or lifts, improved latrine blocks with steps – often funded by foreign donors – make previously accessible locations inaccessible and reduce participation by people with disabilities not only now, but for decades to come.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) passed in 2006 and now ratified by over 150 countries, is a legally binding instrument which calls upon the
global development community to routinely mainstream disability issues in all development efforts. Efforts are now underway to ensure that the provisions of the CRPD are a component in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the SDGs. 

Yet the CRPD and the efforts of the global disability community, including disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and disability-focused NGOs, are largely unknown to many development professionals and NGOs.

In response to the forthcoming SDGs’ call to ‘Leave No One Behind‘, Leonard Cheshire Disability, with Global Alliance members in 54 countries, is working with DPOs, disability-focused NGOs and organisations throughout the broader development community to try to increase awareness and inclusion of people with disability in global development efforts. Disability has been compared to gender in development settings – twenty years ago, women were routinely
overlooked in international development efforts. Today few would think of designing any programme or policy without considering gender issues. 

It is our hope that disability will likewise become an issue routinely included in all development efforts. Until that time, people with disabilities not only are at risk of continuing to live in poverty and social isolation, but also are at risk of facing a widening ‘disability and development gap’, standing still as their non-disabled peers rise out of poverty.

This blog post was based on the following paper:

Groce N, Kett M.  The Disability and Development Gap.  Working Paper No. 21.  London: Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre.  University College London

Banner photo: Support for everyday living. Credit: Leonard Cheshire Disability
Body photo: Ongole, Prakasam District, India. Credit: Leonard Cheshire Disability

Author: Professor Nora Groce
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.