Response: May 2014 Issue

Poverty’s Link to Disabilities

Poverty’s Link to Disabilities

Activists say struggle against poverty will lessen disability.

In countries both rich and poor, there remains a dire lack of services and opportunities available to people with disabilities. Fifteen percent of the world's population — more than 1 billion people — has a disability, according to a 2011 study by the World Health Organization. While people with disabilities are a diverse group, the report documented the critical link between poverty and disability.

People living in poverty are more likely to live and work in precarious circumstances and are less likely to have access to health care and other services, which can lead to disability. Moreover, if you are disabled you are more likely to be denied access to health care, education and livelihood opportunities-all of which contribute to poverty. One in five people living in poverty in poor countries has a disability. If you're a woman or girl or elderly, you're more likely to be poor and thus more vulnerable to becoming disabled.

For a long time people living with disabilities were marginalized both from family and community life and forgotten by governments and agencies that set the agenda for economic development. But the 2006 approval of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities symbolized a shift in attitude and practice. Since being ratified by 139 countries, the convention helps us move away from thinking about people with disabilities as "objects of charity" and instead see them as full historical subjects-equal participants in family and community life as well as important contributors to the well-being of our world.

People with disabilities were actively involved in the negotiations on the convention. In fact, no other treaty in U.N. history has had such strong civil society involvement in its creation. People with disabilities led the way, and their protagonism has set a tone at the United Nations. In discussions about other human rights and development issues, people outside of government and traditional power groups now hold a more significant seat at the table as member states negotiate ways to make our world a safer, healthier and more just place to live.

The United States has a good disability law: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Senator Tom Harkin was its chief sponsor in the Senate, and when he introduced the bill he delivered part of his speech in sign language so his deaf brother could understand. The ADA, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush, was later to serve as a model for much of the U.N. convention.

The ADA is a wide-ranging law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. Yet disability activists in the United States believe more is needed and for years have urged our government to ratify the U.N. convention.

President Barack Obama signed the treaty during his first year in office and established key positions across the breadth of government agencies focused on ensuring disability inclusive policies and practices. Signing the treaty is largely symbolic, however, as international treaties must be ratified by the U.S. Senate. In 2013, the Senate attempted to ratify the convention but failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. Early in 2014, the work for ratification continued with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society actively supporting ratification.

I work for CBM which is an international Christian disability and development organization committed to improving the quality of life of persons with disabilities in the poorest countries of the world. In more than 70 countries around the world, we support health, education, livelihood and advocacy initiatives as well as work to prevent the diseases and conditions that lead to impairment. Through our partners, who include United Methodists, we are reaching more than 41 million people living with disabilities.

While we've made progress in fighting to include people with disabilities in discussions about the world's development agenda, as expressed most clearly in the Millennium Development Goals, this progress hasn't been equitable. People with disabilities and others who are particularly marginalized have continued to be left behind. I'm confident this inequity will be addressed in discussions about what happens after 2015-the deadline for complying with the Millennium Development Goals. There's a clear indication today that people with disabilities and their allies have been heard. The U.N. General Assembly held its first High Level Meeting on Disability and Development in 2013, and the resulting document provides a framework of action for disability inclusive development in the post-2015 agenda.

But so what? What effect does the ratification of an international treaty have in the life of a poor person with a disability? What good are development frameworks that call for disability inclusion? As Balakrishna Venkatesh, a disabled activist in India told me soon after the United Nations approved the convention, "This is just paper. We cannot eat paper!"

He's got a point. A new law or treaty does not in itself guarantee that life will be better. Toothless laws provide no nourishment for the children and adults living with disabilities who struggle both to survive and to be heard. But there is a connection. When we know our rights and when we know the rights of our children, then we are able to defend those rights and to hold our governments accountable.

I've seen this happen. I've witnessed a woman high in the Andes Mountains of Peru rise before a meeting of the village elders to demand that the community fix the path near her house so that her son could get to school in his wheelchair. In Tanzania, I've seen an HIV-positive woman demand a sign language interpreter so she could get accurate information and confidential counseling about her health status. I've seen a young man in the Philippines demand to take his high school exams in Braille.

In Nigeria, I've witnessed a self-help group of women with disabilities insist that new schools and clinics in their village be built according to their country's accessibility laws. I've watched as disabled farmers in India demanded that they be given the same subsidies as other small farmers. In Ecuador, I've seen a grandmother demand better treatment for her granddaughter, who rather than attending school as she wanted was being forced by her parents to park her wheelchair on the street and beg coins from passersby.

Yes, words matter. And our actions to make those words come to life matter. At CBM our motto is, "Together we can do more." Those are more than just words. We work with our partners to improve the quality of life of persons with disabilities in the poorest communities all around the world.


Karen Heinicke-Motsch is director of international programs for CBM US and coordinator of CBM's international advisory group on community-based rehabilitation. Author of several disability studies, she was co-director of "Loud, Proud and Prosperous," a documentary on women with disabilities and economic empowerment.

Posted or updated: 5/1/2014 11:00:00 PM
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