Development’s Cinderella? Why does the aid industry ignore disabled people?

This is a guest post from Tim Wainwright, an Exfam (ex-Oxfam) friend who now runs ADD International, an NGO working on disability Tim Wainwrightand development. An edited version appeared yesterday on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog. It really does puzzle me. Why does so much of mainstream development’s resources, research, campaigning efforts and attention ignore disabled people? Around 1 in 7 of the world’s population – 1 billion people – are disabled. Few extended families will not have a child, a parent, or a grandparent who is disabled. And disabled people will certainly be a significant proportion of the estimated 300 million plus chronically poor stuck ‘below the line’ even if the MDGs succeed in halving poverty by 2015. This is because disability can trap individuals and their families in poverty – and living in poverty also means you’re far more likely to be born disabled or to become disabled. The figures bear this out: within this group there are staggering levels of unemployment (80-90%), literacy rates as low as 3%, and one of every three children not in school are disabled. This is before we even begin to consider the huge number of people whose lives are affected by disability – such as a child who has to leave school when her father becomes disabled through an accident at work. Talk to any disabled person about their experiences and they will soon tell you about the assumptions and discrimination they face in all areas of life. Just this week I spoke to Said in Tanzania, a young man who is dealing not only with the problems of visual impairment, but also the fear and rejection of his family and community. As a child his relatives refused to buy him a uniform so he could go to school, telling him ‘You are like a dead person to us’. It is often these negative attitudes that make it harder for disabled people to access their basic rights and to have a voice within their families and communities – let alone at the policymaking level. Our long experience of working with organizations of disabled people has demonstrated, time and again, the powerful difference that disabled people can make by coming together and challenging the assumptions and discrimination which hold them back. This change is going on at all levels – from the grassroots, where activists like Said seek out other disabled people in the community and mentor them in tackling discrimination and accessing opportunities – to the policymaking level, where national disability movements campaign for disability legislation and practical policies to ensure that legislation is implemented. This is what disabled people are doing. But where are these issues in the mainstream? The Education MDG (the only MDG using the word ‘inclusive’), has a 100% target of school attendance. Yet many education programmes (including large multidonor trust funds) don’t check if disabled children are being reached by their work. There are exceptions. Some big donors and INGOs have ‘disability units’ and make grants to disabled people – but might not mention that this makes up a tiny percentage of their overall funding. Some have gone further – many Scandinavian donors have excellent policies, and USAID and AusAID have both prioritised disability in helpful ways – as well as admitting they have a way to go. Prior to its closure this year, World Vision’s disability mainstreaming unit published useful materials. But overall, coverage is very thin. Disabled people appear to be in the same position in the development debate as women were 20 years ago. Not employed by the development industry, not seen and so not reached. I am not suggesting all development work is now gender-sensitised, but compared to disabled people, women do nowadays at least seem to count, and to be counted. Disabled women are doubly discriminated against. At ADD International we support disabled women to organise and successfully challenge gender based violence (2-3 times higher than for non-disabled women) or to campaign on education where the 3% levels of literacy sink to the shocking level of 1% for disabled women. DPOs organizationI have heard of people in very senior positions in international development saying ‘we do poverty, not disability’. When I worked in the mainstream, there was a sense of competition between development workers who managed to focus their work on the most remote tribal village, to reach the most excluded minority group. Disabled people, particularly women, are probably the poorest and most excluded group there is – but for some reason don’t seem to attract the same level of attention. It’s true that disabled people are more likely to be economically inactive; many will have lacked food, clothing or access to education from an early age. But this can be overcome – at ADD we have seen many times over how, with support, disabled people can overcome barriers and establish successful small businesses. So what is it that stops the vast majority of development professionals thinking about this group of people? Is it possible that most still perceive disabled people as a ‘special interest group’, which organisations may or may not take an interest in? Perhaps women in development were once seen in this way – before an understanding of gender issues became mainstream. Our society might now be less patriarchal but are we still living in an ‘ability-archy’? My challenge to the mainstream is this: Would it be so difficult to put women and disabled people at the heart of everything you do? Employ representative numbers of disabled people in your teams? Make all your offices accessible? Ensure your development work involves and benefits disabled people equally? Many people think this would cost the earth – but it doesn’t – WaterAid recently published the results of a study in Ethiopia showing that delivering water and sanitation in an accessible way only costs 2-3% more. I have spent many years working in mainstream development. I now run a disability focussed organisation, and can tell you truthfully that I have never been so inspired by what a particularly challenged group of people are able to achieve, when they are empowered to organise, form self help groups, understand their rights, and have the opportunity to take control of their own lives. I don’t believe disabled people need a non-disabled Prince Charming – they just need an invitation to the ball. And here’s a 14 minute ADD video to back up Tim’s arguments: ]]>

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11 Responses to “Development’s Cinderella? Why does the aid industry ignore disabled people?”
  1. Kirsty

    Having worked in the disability sector, I was a bit disappointed when I joined Oxfam GB and found that we decided to increase our investment on gender, and as a consequence had phased out of some of the disability work that we used to do. This was in contrast to other big INGOs (World Vision / VSO) which were putting disability issues much more centrally within their strategies.
    I can totally understand the desire within Oxfam to try and focus on being really good at a smaller number of things – we are often accused of trying to do everything and that can be a problem too! Plus I think our gender work has shown the level of investment, resource and committment that is required to actually make a significant contribution rather than simply tokenistic mainstreaming so it might be better to mainstream gender really well rather than both things badly…
    But there are still enormous numbers of disabled people who are more extremely marginalised in my view than many other groups who receive our attention… and if our mission is to overcome poverty and suffering – then shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that disability issues are seriously considered in our programme design?
    I can imagine my fellow programme staff groaning at the thought of something else to “mainstream” and that is a real practical problem too that shouldn’t be dismissed…
    Does anyone else have any thoughts on what the answer might be for organisations like Oxfam?

  2. Rob Myers

    The explanation might be found in the way some NGOs treat their own disabled staff, for example making them redundant while pretending they were not aware of their disabilities, in spite of the rhetoric on their website. In particular when the disability is a mental illness known to be caused by the nature of the job and repeated exposures to trauma. The “diversity” statistics of NGOs in terms of staff disability should be able to tell the whole story.

  3. I consider NGOs should establish action programmes in the matter of disability like one of the first priorities. They need to keep coherent with their aim of helping the most vulnerable people by promoting their rights through empowerment.

  4. Gareth Price-Jones

    I can’t speak for all agencies, but I’ve highly appreciated Handicap International’s approach over the past few years in a number of emergencies I’ve worked in. Although their own programming with disabled people is significant, what’s had a lot more impact is their work with other agencies to support disability mainstreaming. Here in Bangladesh they are technical partners (along with HelpAge) for the NARRI consortium (Oxfam, ActionAid, Plan, Concern Worldwide, Concern Universal, Islamic Relief, Care and Solidarite), helping us to ensure our joint programs take account of disability issues and integrate them into design, accountability and other elements of programs. This has enabled other consortium members to focus on what they do best while ensuring the program as a whole is successfully influenced by experts on how to ‘do’ disability effectively.

  5. Disabled people should have the same rights as everyone else and as a UK employer it is against the law to discriminate against them so i’m hoping that as your article says and disabled rights are where the rights of women were 20 years ago that the rights will increase in the next few years.

  6. Sue Coe

    In response to Kirsty’s comments, one of the biggest mistakes INGOs make is to see disability mainstreaming as a competing priority and “another” sector, as she says happened at Oxfam. Gender mainstreaming and disability mainstreaming have much in common. Disability inclusion should be a strong component of gender mainstreaming – disabled girls and women are doubly disadvantaged due to widespread stigma. In reality people are in overlapping, not competing categories.
    Tim’s piece identifies many key challenges and I hope will stimulate discussion – especially in light of the rapidly spreading UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People – on how the mainstream development community can more effectively include such a large number of people who are currently mainly ignored in their work.

  7. Thank you to everyone who has commented so far on my blog entry and also the positive messages I have received via email, Facebook and Twitter.
    However, with the exception of a couple of interesting comments (thanks Gareth, nice to hear from you – please do hook up with my colleague Mosharraf Hossain in Bangladesh) the people responding are already working with disabled people. For me this reinforces the message in the article: that the mainstream just isn’t engaged.
    So whilst it is great to have so much support from people in the same field as ADD, I am disappointed not to have had any response from larger poverty focussed organisations at whom the article is aimed.
    At the suggestion of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) I have emailed the blog to all the other organisations who, like ADD, have a Programme Partnership Agreement (PPA) with them to see if any of them would like to comment – so I hope that maybe over the next week or two we may have more responses –let us see.
    Duncan – perhaps you could comment on your own blog? Is there anything you can share from Oxfam’s internal thinking on this subject?
    At a gathering of disability and development organisations this week, the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC), we discussed how the EU has, over the last decade, increased the number of calls for proposals that insist on the inclusion of disabled people.
    Whilst I would hope that poverty focussed and rights based organisations would automatically be thinking of the most excluded in their work, perhaps by donors also making this a requirement of funding we might begin to see some change?
    Tim Wainwright
    CEO, ADD International

  8. Eric Fergusson

    I would like to echo Rob Myers sentiments above. What i perhaps need to make clear is that there are disability NGOs that make their own staff redundant even when they are aware the staff in question are disabled. I am clearly not interested in setting out hypocritical trends. I used to be a supporter of ADD until they lost the vision. ADD is no longer the great, unique disability organisation it used to be!! Before ADD starts to point fingers at the Oxfams of this world and the rest, can ADD give us disability statistics of its staff? ADD has in the recent past made a number of disabled staff redundant whilst retaining non-disabled staff!! And i would like Gareth Price-Jones to know that Handicap International does not employ disabled staff. Yes, inclusion would be a great thing but disability organisations must take the lead and stop acting holier than thou. I am tired of the sheer amount of hypocrisy in this stuff called “development”. ADD long went to the dogs. The world, are you listening?

  9. Kat Mead

    The most pressing issue faced globally by disabled people is not their specific disability, but rather their lack of equitable access to resources of which employment is a key one, resulting in disabled people having disproportionately high rates of poverty.
    Disability organisations know this and must be the first to do more and be seen to be doing more before they can call on others.
    Unemployment rates for disabled people in many countries routinely reach two-thirds of all those with disabilities or more, and many of those who are employed are able to find only part-time positions. Moreover, when disabled people do find work they are likely to be the last ones hired and the first ones fired or made redundant. They also find it far more difficult to advance to more skilled or more highly paid positions for “lack of experience”. The ability to find and retain a job is of even greater concern in times of economic downturns. Not only are the links between disability and poverty of note in themselves, but the size of the global disabled population makes these links of particular concern to all those in international development working on poverty issues.
    I want to call upon international disability organisations to be more inclusive. ADD, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Sightsavers, CBM, Handicap International and others, what percentage of your staff in senior positions in the UK, Germany, France and overseas have a disability, and in what positions? What strategic decisions have been taken to employ disabled people at the highest levels of your organisations? Do you shortlist and interview disabled people with the genuine intention of hiring them or just to tick boxes?
    In terms of liquid money, how much of your overall budgets are set aside for Inclusion within your organisations? How accessible are your practices at all stages of recruitment? Is disability awareness part of all staff induction in your organisations?
    Are your Boards committed in word and deed to inclusion? Do you have regular Board and senior management team reviews of their own and organisations’ performance on disability? For those of you with 1 or 2 disabled people on your Boards (like ADD), does it make a difference in the way you operate with regard to inclusion?
    Do you have regular coverage of disability in all individual performance reviews? Why do you not have a self standing section in your organisations’ annual reviews and similar publications on your own performance on disability? Do you find it important to reserve any particularly relevant posts for disabled people? Have you been awarded the two -ticks disability symbol? Do you make it real or it is just a PR tool for hoodwinking others? Have you thought about testing your performance against any relevant external accreditation and benchmarking on disability?
    It must not be business as usual. Until you can do all these things, I am afraid you clearly have no credibility and should stop asking mainstream development organisations to be inclusive!
    I live in Frome where ADD is based. My grandfather was a regular monthly donor to ADD until he died. We used to regularly visit the ADD office and were pleased that nearly half of the staff had a disability. That’s not the case anymore. According to Mr. Javed Abidi, the new chair of Disabled Peoples International, if we want the true emancipation of disabled people, we will have to move beyond the rhetoric and the tokenism……we will have to invest in disabled people, build their capacities to be active and contributing members in the strategies for the implementation of CRPD, groom younger leadership…….
    Sadly, the disability industry is ignoring disabled people. Thou shall practice what you preach!

  10. While the importance of mainstreaming disability into overall development cooperation activities has been increasingly acknowledged, it has not yet taken place in Bosnia and Herzegovina and most other countries of South Eastern Europe. Although several actors do indeed implement disability-related activities, the ‘Twin-Track approach” is still not adopted, while disability issues and concerns are not mainstreamed in sector-wide approaches or given direct budget support. As a result, there is a lack of good practice examples and knowledge about how to bring about disability inclusive policy and practice..
    In my view, the key to success is in building partnerships for disability, rehabilitation and inclusion efforts. These partnerships are essential for shaping both policy and practice to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. Then again, decent jobs, inclusion and deinstitutionalisation are the key to empowerment. Capacities to this end need to be built, as well as providing expert and technical assistance to persons with disabilities and their associations to use the available funds for business start-up and its sustainability.
    In my experience, the quality of life of persons with disabilities may also be significantly improved through social innovation, ICT, and piloting of locally sourced assistive technologies. A smart and innovative campaign, using conventional, web based and social media media tools including crowd sourcing, was an effective tool for raising awareness on disability issues and to promote implementation of the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities.