Monday, June 13, 2011

Disability in Africa

One of the joys of my current consulting role in Africa is that I get to interact with a significant number of NGOs and international welfare organisations. From a social issues perspective, this interaction has been enlightening. While I have largely been focused on education related development work in Uganda and Central Africa, one recent interaction outside this realm stands out as worthy of mention. That is the topic of disability in Africa.

In stark contrast to the likes of the BBC that pay great attention to catering for people with disabilities, the priority this segment of the population is given in Africa is shocking. Africa is a region facing some unique challenges with respect to fighting poverty - as such, people with disabilities will automatically be disproportionately represented. The number of disabled rise due to malnutrition, natural disasters, civil strife and conflict, and of course AIDS.

The disabled in Africa are all but ignored in local society. They form part of a vicious cycle in which they are unable to contribute economically, which consequently makes them of less perceived value as human beings - harsh, but this is the reality. This perceived lower value in turn gives people even less incentive to make any sort of investment in uplifting the disabled - physically, emotionally, economically or otherwise.

Worse yet, not only are they largely invisible to the local able population, they also appear to be invisible in development initiatives. The willingness to to contribute is there, and its strong - but they are unfortunately marginalised because they are perceived to be a burden. The result as can be expected, is devastating, both to the disabled individual as well as to the economy.

Further aggravating the situation is that while international organisations acknowledge the importance of catering for the disabled in these markets, and their involvement in poverty alleviation initiatives, there is little to no research done in the area. This lack of information about disability and poverty in Africa and indeed in other developing nations around the world, makes it difficult for welfare organisations and NGOs to actively obtain funding for necessary initiatives.

Most recently, Benin and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) are undergoing such studies to support future aid efforts by the likes of the World Bank - one can only hope that these studies not only begin to identify some critical statistics around disability, but also draw a solid link between disability and poverty in the developing world. Without such a link, it will be difficult to get sufficient funding to do anything of consequence in this area.

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As an aside, some of the recent development and professional coaching work I have been involved with in the education sector has involved engaging with disabled students extensively. It appears, just in the region I am currently working in in Uganda, that school enrollment of disabled children is often as low as 10-15%. Again, this is not a matter of ability but rather one of negative perception, lack of appropriate resources (it still has me taking a punt on an online slots casino every now and then in the hopes that I can start my own self-administered development fund for Africa), and most of all a regressive social attitude towards disability.

Until this perception of the disabled changes in the eyes of the African public, very little will actually be done to alleviate the plight of the African disabled.