disAbility and development

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to work for the Ministry of Community and Social Services, with their Assistance for Children with Severe Disabilities (ACSD) and Special Services at Home (SSAH) programs. They are government programs that provide funding to low and middle-income families to support the extraordinary needs of their child’s disability.

Being an able-bodied person, I was largely unaware of the extraordinary needs that these programs try to meet. Sure, I had an understanding of basic mobile accessibility concerns for those with physical disabilities, the need for hearing aids or materials in braille for those with sensory disabilities, and so on. However, my able-bodied privilege has meant that I have never been confronted with these challenges. Working with these programs opened up my eyes to circumstances I hadn’t previously considered: Parents searching for camps that can support their child’s physical, intellectual, or sensory disability, the HUGE transportation and travel costs associated with regular doctor’s appointments, and the list just goes on, and on, and on…

The traditional disability symbol showing a person in a wheelchair is misleading. Only 5% of persons with disabilities are wheelchair users.

I was fortunate enough to go on home visits with special agreements officers (those that determine funding), to meet with families and learn firsthand their struggle to financially meet the needs of their child’s disability. The most moving experience was meeting an immigrant family dealing with multiple disabilities. The young daughter had a physical disability and the son had an intellectual disability. As a family unit, they all struggled with language barriers, adjusting to a new country, and poverty.

This experience got me wondering about how disability intersects with poverty and development. Over 1 billion people live with a physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental health disability worldwide. Persons with disabilities often constitute the poorest and most marginalized of all the world’s citizens, with disability being seen as both a cause and a consequence of poverty.  Eighty percent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries.

Persons with disabilities face many challenges. Both in developed and developing countries, the sexuality of persons with disabilities is largely ignored, as they are [wrongly] assumed to be asexual. This means that persons with disabilities receive little to no sexual health education, their reproductive rights are ignored (think forced abortion and sterilization for example), and they often face increased rates of physical and sexual abuse. This becomes especially problematic across the Global South where the transmission of HIV is high. Without adequate access to sexual health information sensitive to the needs of varying disabilities and exclusion from HIV prevention campaigns, persons with disabilities are left at an increased risk for HIV infection. This is just one example of where disability intersects with development challenges, and where destructive misconceptions and stereotypes leave persons with disabilities continuously facing social inequalities and unnecessary vulnerability.

Where else in development do you see a lack of consideration to persons with disabilities?

I would love to hear your opinions on and experiences with disability, disability and development, or able-bodied privilege!


13 thoughts on “disAbility and development

  1. I have also experienced able bodied privilege and have not truly thought about the daily challenges individuals with disabilities face. Prior to working with individuals with disabilities I thought of disabilities strictly in the physical sense. In my social work course in university I was required to do an assignment on accessibility and was to pick a building and asses if it was accessible. To my amazement I found that many of the buildings even the newer ones had a great deal of accessibility issues making it difficult for students with physical disabilities to get to class. Disabilities however are much more than just physical and with 1 in 5 suffering from mental illness it is evident that other disabilities exist. Although there are many individuals with disabilities who are able to work often times the amount they can work is limited due to numerous doctor’s appointments and other barriers to employment. There is also a number of individuals with disabilities who are unable to work and as a result are poor and marginalized. The ACSD program is helpful to insure that parents of low and middle income families have the funds they need to meet the extra care needs their children have. This is similar to the Ontario Disability Support Program which provides financial assistance to adults with disabilities. I think the key here is to ensure that we work with individuals to remove the barriers they face so they can receive the same education, and training that able-bodied people receive. This may help prevent individuals with disabilities from being so marginalized and assist with stopping things like the HIV issues that you mentioned.

    • Thanks for sharing! I too always seemed to think of disability in a physical sense. It is what the universal disability symbol portrays after all. But there are so many disability variations that cannot go ignored. You bring up a major one with mental health. It’s interesting though, I feel as though there is a large number of people who would not consider mental health a disability. Many people don’t realize the immense emotional, psychological, and physical toll that mental health can take on a person.

      That was a really interesting class assignment that you had to do as well! I feel as though if more people had to confront these challenges or opened their eyes to accessibility concerns, perspectives on disability would be different.

      You also bring up an important point of working WITH persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are not victims, or helpless. They are people just like you and I who simply have different circumstances to work within. It is important for persons with varying disabilities to be active participants in decision making that can make education and employment more accessible to them.

    • You are absolutely correct. There are a variety of disabilities which run into Barriers (often). Hidden disabilities are the most discriminated. To some it may be an easy task until you’ve experience something that has put a bit of a limitation in your livelihood, Although, accommodating or enhancing the Abilities of a person can allow functioning like no other.


  2. We are so fortunate in Canada to have access to so many forms of assistance for persons with disabilities who require help. Whether it be financial assistance, help finding work, access to medical care, technological devices, and so on there are numerous sources of help available to those that need it. While government assistance cannot possibly meet all needs, it does provide a much needed safety net. This does not exist in many developed countries across the world and definitely not in developing countries. In a recent trip to Europe, as I travelled down narrow streets, hilly terrain, and climbed numerous steps, I often wondered how a person with a mobility impairment would fair. There were no elevators, ramps, curbs on sidewalks, etc. I saw a young man with a partially amputated leg getting around on a busy street by sitting on a skateboard. He was very resourceful and enjoyed going on the downhill sections. Survival is such a strong instinct isn’t it! People are also very adaptable when they need to be. It left me wondering why this person didn’t have a wheelchair. With all the technological and medical advances today I felt that the young man should have access to more, better. Did my privileged life experience bias my opinion? Or, in a world where there is so much was I thinking why doesn’t everyone have equal access to the basics they need?

    • thanks for sharing your experience! that’s really interesting. I suppose it is in our nature to want better for people or to expect, that especially somewhere in Europe, there would be greater access to such mobility devices. It is disheartening to think that the basic needs of people, especially those with disabilities, are not being meet or even worse, overlooked.

    • wow, thanks for sharing! I wasn’t aware of this. I especially like the empowerment and community based approach. When it comes to finding solutions to challenges being faced by persons with disabilities, there are no better people to consult then those facing these challenges themselves as they know their needs best. As the disability inclusion slogan goes, “nothing about us, without us”!

  3. I am currently working at mental health agency where i am working with individuals who suffer from mental health issues such as personality, schizophrenia etc.. and sometimes its partnered with a development or learning disability. As an able bodied person i thought i knew what i was getting myself into that i understood what these individuals were going through. I specifically work in the employment aspect of the agency where i work these individuals to establish a part time or full time job. However as difficult as that sounds i was not prepared for the stereotyping and slander of these innocent individuals when i was actively assisting them in job searching. I was greatly appalled at the number of was that employers could beat around the law and find excuses for not hiring an individual with a disability or a mental health issue. These individuals are no more are less dangerous then you or I. Not all crazy people are criminals i can tell you that much. They have the same rights and are able to get the assistance but what is the point when society will just push them back into unemployment. They are a hidden resources that i think should be considered an assets to this country and to the world. People with mental health and disability have so much to offer and sometimes are more likely to stay in a position longer because of fear of starting over. How many of us can say we stuck through some of our worst job experiences. I really did get an eye opening experience these past few weeks and i hope to actively go into the community with support works and see what exactly everyone fears so much. Thank you for being an active voice that has reminded me that helping those in need is truly what i was meant to do 🙂

  4. I just wanted to say I think you bring up a really great point with the lack of sexual health education given to the disabled community. I’ve never really thought about it before, but I think it is portrayed that way in the media- that one is to assume that a disability = asexuality. It’s interesting because I have always believed that today’s society is based on assuming something due to the physical appearance of something or someone. I have always only had this idea on an individual level, however. That is to say, I think your point brings about the fact that not only are we thinking this way individually, but this idea has also spread to larger organizations, society as a whole and most definitely the media. Even thinking about the posters in bus shelters and on billboards promoting the idea of safe sex practices- I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with a physical disability in one of those pictures. You bring up a really important point!!

  5. Hello,
    My name is Penny. I have hidden disAbilities which could limit me and my livelihood. I often run into obstacles along the way, which I do not have a problem with educating or filing a complaint. I’ve read the LAW here in the USA. July 26, 2012 will be 22 years since the American’s with Disability Act was signed into law by President Bush. Today, we still fight for our rights even after our Founder, Mr Robert’s had created the Movement of Independent Living.

    Running into Barriers can happen to anyone. That is just life in general. But when, a person cannot hear if their name being called to come to the front desk. Then I would definetly say there is something wrong.

    With technology today, many barriers could be crossed effectively. But, because of the ignorance (sorry) of agencies, businesses, entities, etc. folks do not want to adhere to the problem let alone a solution.

    Your article caught my eye, and it is very well said. Abled body or not respect for another human is a basic right. I speak to several organizations, Uganda, Kenya etc. who are trying to better their service to PWD’s (people with disabilities), but they too are limited by law, and government.

    Globally, I challenge fighting for the rights of PWD’s; it is the right thing to do.

    Thank you so much for your article. I shared it to my follower’s.


    • Hi Penny. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful insights. I appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences.

      As a Canadian, I must admit I was not familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I took a little bit of time to look into it and it is clearly an important piece of legislation for those who are differently abled. While doing this quick research though, I came across numerous oppositions to the legislation, largely citing that it is “too costly” to make the changes outlined in the law, particularly in regards to public accommodations (making buildings accessible and such). I find it very sad that there is this prevailing notion that money and profit is more important than people and allowing all people to fully participate within their communities. You said it best when you said “abled body or not respect for another human is a basic right”. I think this is something people all too often lose sight of, unless they are the one personally facing the barriers.

      As you mention, we certainly have the technology and the resources to make everything accessible across all abilities. However, it is the stereotypes and misconceptions about persons who are differently abled that prevents progress from being made and prevents barriers from being reduced. It is clear that more widespread education about the challenges PWDs face is necessary.

      I look forward to following your blog and learning more about disAbility challenges and activism as I try to make myself more informed about these very important issues!


      • You are very welcome. Thank you for your response. I also look forward to your blog posts as well. Maybe together we can “Help make it right”!

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