Disability and poverty – a vicious circle

An old man in a wheelchair selling cigarettes in Blida, Algeria.

It is estimated that there are more than one billion people with disabilities in the world, 80 per cent of whom live in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. If family mem­bers are taken into account too, the number of people directly or indirectly affected by a disability is sig­ni­fi­cant­ly higher. In de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, people with disabilities often experience dis­cri­mi­na­tion and ostracism. They are excluded from political, business and social life, which is a violation of their basic human rights.

Causes of disabilities

Disabilities are caused by factors such as illness, malnutrition, incorrect treatment or lack of treatment, physical and psychological violence, war, pollution, accidents resulting from inadequate safety provisions at work or on the roads and, increasingly, age-related health complaints. Experts assume that 50 per cent of disabilities could be avoided and are a direct consequence of pov­er­ty.

Poverty and disability create a vicious circle that is difficult to break because of social barriers. Often, poor people are unable to feed themselves and their families properly and they cannot pay for medical treatment should they fall ill. The upshot is that people who live in pov­er­ty face a higher health risk due to their circumstances and that means a higher risk of disability as well.

By the same token, disability increases the risk of pov­er­ty. Often, people with disabilities have no access to healthcare and education, are unable to find employment and have no social protection. But their living costs increase since they have to pay for the special aids they require.

Definition of disability

Boy with crutches in Windhuk, Namibia. Copyright: T. Köhler/photothek.netThere is no universal, legally binding definition of the word "disability". Indeed, social and cultural norms play a major role in what a society deems to be a disability. Having said that, a "social" definition of disability is gaining ground in in­ter­national policymaking – including in the area of de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion. According to this definition, disability is less about characteristics pertaining to the individual, such as a physical impairment, and more about barriers stemming from their en­vi­ron­ment and other people's negative attitudes. It is these two aspects that prevent people with impairments from participating equally in social life. In a nutshell, they are not disabled in themselves – others disable them.

This idea results in an approach that is based on human rights, which maintains that people with disabilities have the same rights as everyone else and that, consequently, barriers which stop disabled people participating fully in society have to be removed.

German de­vel­op­ment policy is guided by this human rights-based approach. Germany's inclusive de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion activities promote equal rights for and participation by people with disabilities. They are seen as active partners in efforts to implement their rights. As a result, Germany not only provides support for programmes specifically for people with disabilities but also considers it even more im­por­tant to ensure that all German de­vel­op­ment projects are accessible to people with disabilities.

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