Making Space for Disability in Development


When thinking of development, many tend to consider those who are most in need: the ultra-poor, the malnourished, and the victimized. It’s natural to first consider things such as poverty, education, and health; these are all important aspects of the development process. In the same respect, those with disabilities should also be on the list. However, disabled people are frequently neglected and seem to be considered a niche market within a wide array of development initiatives and programs.  Probably the most outspoken commenter on this issue, Duncan Green of Oxfam, admits to hearing many in development reason “we do poverty, not disability.

Perhaps this is most shocking because people with disabilities are considered to be the most disadvantaged of the bunch. For the case of this blog, disability is defined as both physical and cognitive impairment. People with disabilities make up ten percent of the world’s population, eight percent of which are living in developing countries. As such, this issue is entirely relevant to the development field. For people with disabilities in developing countries, unemployment is at a staggering 80 percent. Children with disabilities have a 1.7 times greater chance of being the victims of violence than those without disabilities. Not to mention, up to 25 percent of such disabilities are the result of violence.

This issue is also quite prevalent in times of natural disasters, when people with disabilities require an entirely different approach to emergency response. During disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, those with disabilities were among those most at risk. Evacuation is an especially cumbersome task when a person requires additional assistance to move, especially when time is of the essence. In addition, such disasters resulted in a greater number of people sustain injuries that lead to lifelong disabilities. In a blog post “Why Aid Agencies Must Remember Haiti’s Disabled,” the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Toby Simon recounts the story of Loufin, a single mother living in Port-au-Prince. After the 2010 earthquake, Loufin lost, due to amputation, both her right arm and left leg. While given a prosthetic leg after recovery, Loufin was never given occupational or physical therapy to learn how to properly operate it, and so the prosthetic remains unused.

Several organizations have already begun initiatives to make disability a priority in development. The International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) is a consortium of NGOs and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) which works to protect the rights of disabled people living in lower- and middle-income countries. The Women’s Refugee Commission has conducted extensive field research on refugees and internally-displaced people with disabilities in order to identify gaps in emergency response and improvements that can be made. These initiatives are among a few initiatives that demonstrate a growing interest in the role of disability in development. There are similar programs being undertaken by USAID, World Vision, and the WHO.

Disability is relevant to all aspects of development: disaster, conflict, education, employment, poverty, and hunger. These new initiatives are striving to make disability a part of the overall discussion and ensure that disability is addressed in development objectives.

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