Disability and the Developing World

By Khalfan H. Khalfan

To be whole it is not necessary to be young, beautiful and perfect. People with disabilities have the right to participate fully in the mainstream of life. Ensuring this right is one of the objectives of Disabled Peoples International (DPI), a network of national organizations or assemblies of disabled people established to promote the human rights of disabled people.

There is a serious lack of reliable information about the nature and prevalence of disability, particularly in many of the developing countries, whose disabled people account for the majority of the 600 million people with disabilities in the world. In such countries, the issue of disability is intricately wound up with the problems of poverty. Not only does poverty, with its attendant problems of disease and inadequate health provision, directly create disability, it allows few concessions for the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities. The problems of inadequate nutrition, lack of basic services, short life expectancy and so forth are compounded for people with disabilities.

An Ivorian man blinded by river blindness; this disease affects some 18 million people throughout the developing world.   [MARK EDWARDS/Still Pictures]

Up to 80 percent of the general population in Africa lives in rural areas. Here, disability prevention and rehabilitation remain a dream. The UN World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled People cited a figure of more than 350 million people with disabilities living in areas where essential services needed to help them in overcoming their limitations are not available.

People with disabilities have the right to determine their own destiny and control decisions that affect their lives. Yet the dependency into which they are forced and their exclusion from public life militate against this. The vicious circle of poverty, exclusion and dependency can be gleaned from literacy statistics, for example, which indicate higher than average rates of illiteracy among people with disabilities--most particularly women with disabilities.

Developing Capacity

The extensive work DPI has carried out, especially in developing countries where most of its members are, in capacity building, leadership development, human rights promotion, network exchange and related programs, has done much to empower organizations of people with disabilities. The impact of this work can be seen in the many developing countries that now have policies and legislation to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities. Disability is no longer seen as a matter of charity but as a human rights and development issue.

My own experience of the hurdles of living with a disability in a developing country began during my first year at secondary school in Zanzibar in 1960 when I became disabled and had to start to use a wheelchair. It was a very difficult situation. The sudden experience of being cut off from my community and having all my options radically scaled down made me feel as though my life had come to an end. No rehabilitation services were available. The attitudes I encountered were prevalently negative and patronizing. The overprotectiveness of my family made my situation even worse.

I returned to school reluctantly after one year of absence. It was disheartening. The school environment was not accessible to me, so I suffered to get an education. I was stared at and had to deal with constant expressions of sympathy and pity.

Students lead a chant of "What do we want? A deaf president!" during the dramatic "Deaf President Now!" campaign waged in March 1988 at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C., which saw the appointment of the first deaf president in the 124-year history of the renowned university for the deaf and hard of hearing.  [Gallaudet University Archives]

The memory of that struggle was one motivating factor for me to form a national disability organization to fight for the rights of people with disabilities and bring changes to the society we live in. Our organization became a member of DPI and benefited from DPI leadership development programs.

Later, I became a schoolteacher, married and now have three grownup daughters whom I brought up according to Zanzibar ethics and culture.

One incident that I will never forget is when the Ministry of Education stopped me from traveling to the U.K. for further studies on the grounds that it could not allow "sick people" to travel! What a disappointment!

I am proud of the changes we have made and the respect we now enjoy as a result.

A nine-year-old boy at an Angolan training center for landmine victims   [MIKE KOLLOFFEL/Still Pictures]

A Changing Landscape

I have learned a lot from my colleagues at DPI and other disability activists. I learned that one cannot talk of human rights or democracy without including everybody. One also cannot talk about human rights, poverty and marginalization without including women and other under-represented groups. Being born in a poor family, growing up as a disabled person, I understand well what that kind of exclusion means, and I can thus easily relate these issues to the situation in Zanzibar. Today, there are more Disability Rights Movements in our countries than at any other time. There is more awareness of disability issues. Many developing countries have now adopted policies and legislation to protect and enhance the rights of people with disabilities.

Some African countries like South Africa and Uganda have put disability in their national constitutions, and others now have representatives with disabilities in their parliaments and policy-making bodies.

Much remains to be done, however, particularly with regard to implementation of legislation. Governments are still not allocating adequate resources for disability work, which is usually seen as an NGO issue which must find its own funding.

Our nations should recognize that to build societies in which human rights and dignity are a reality it is imperative that the needs of the poorest and most marginalized members of society be respected and properly addressed.

Khalfan H. Khalfan is Disabled Peoples International's Deputy Chairperson for Development and Under-Represented Groups and Regional Chairperson for Africa.