Disability is not Inability

Articles - General

Earlier this week, on 3 December, the International Day of Disabled Persons (IDDP) was commemorated in countries around the world. IDDP was proclaimed in 1992 through United Nations General Assembly Resolution 47/3. Annually celebrated, IDDP aims to increase public awareness, understanding, and acceptance of people with disability, celebrate their achievements and contributions, and promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society. With IDDP representing an important opportunity to raise awareness and address misconceptions, this article provides a general overview of disability and briefly explores disability within the context of Eritrea.

As a concept, disability is complex, dynamic, multidimensional, and contested. It can generally be defined as a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual of their group. The term is often used to refer to individual functioning, including physical impairment, sensory impairment, cognitive impairment, intellectual impairment, mental illness, and various types of chronic disease. According to data from a range of regional and international organizations, there are over one billion people – or approximately 15 percent of the world’s population – living with some form of disability. Notably, about 80 percent live in developing countries and between 100 and 200 million disabled persons are children. Disability disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, and it is more common among women, older people, and children and adults who are poor. Rates of disability are increasing due to population ageing and increases in chronic health conditions, among other causes. Something important to keep in mind when discussing disability is that disability is a basic part of the human condition. In fact, almost everyone is temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in their life (UNICEF 2015; WHO 2014).

Around the world, individuals living with disabilities, often regarded as “the world’s largest minority”, are confronted by a range of challenges. For example, despite having the same general health care needs as others within the general population, persons with disabilities are more likely to find health care providers’ skills and facilities inadequate, more likely to be denied health care, and more likely to be treated poorly within the health care system. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally approximately 200 million people need glasses or other low-vision devices, yet do not have access to them, while the global production of hearing aids only meets about 10% of the global need – and only about 3% of developing countries’ needs (WHO 2016).

In addition to having generally poorer health, people living with disabilities tend to have fewer economic opportunities, lower rates of employment, a higher risk of violence, and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. Regarding poverty, people with disabilities often face worse living conditions – including insufficient food, poor housing, and a lack of access to safe water and sanitation – than non-disabled people. Since they have extra costs, such as medical care, assistive devices, or personal support, people with disabilities are generally poorer than non-disabled people with similar income (WHO 2016).

People living with disabilities are also confronted with challenges in education. For example, they have lower education achievements, children with disabilities are less likely to attend school than non-disabled children, and fewer than 5% of adults living with disabilities across Africa are able to read or write (WHO n.d.).

Beyond the challenges outlined above, individuals living with a disability must also deal with stigma, discrimination, and stereotypes. Stigma is described as a dynamic process of devaluation that significantly discredits an individual in the eyes of others (Goffman 1963), while discrimination refers to any form of arbitrary distinction, exclusion, or restriction affecting a person, usually, but not only, by virtue of an inherent personal characteristic or perceived belonging to a particular group. Finally, stereotyping is judging or characterizing everyone in a group in the same way based on one’s own opinion or those of others. Although stereotypes may be true or partly true in some cases, they are certainly not true in all cases. Moreover, although they may, at times, be “positive”, they are quite often “negative” and harmful.

Stigma, discrimination, and stereotypes associated with disability are frequently driven by a lack of understanding and awareness regarding the causes of disabilities and their resulting characteristics. Importantly, misconceptions about the cause of disabilities often arise from cultural or religious beliefs. For instance, in many countries, including Eritrea, disability is often blamed on misdeeds of ancestors, parents, or the person with a disability. Additionally, disabilities may be attributed to supernatural forces, such as demons, spirits, or witchcraft, or seen as punishment or fate from God. Misconceptions about the nature and abilities of people with disabilities include: that they are unable to contribute financially; that they are not able to have a normal relationship; that their disability is contagious or they bring bad luck; that their bodies have magical powers; or that they are witches (Rohwerder 2018).

Stigma, stereotypes, and discrimination – prevalent both around the world and within Eritrea – mean that people with disabilities are often perceived as less than human or a source of shame. Ultimately, they have serious and negative consequences for how people with disabilities are treated and they often restrict those with disabilities from participating in society on an equal basis with others.

In Eritrea, although there has been much progress in supporting people with disabilities, a great deal of work still needs to be done. The following are several humble recommendations of possible steps that may be taken in the country.

First, along the lines of the maxim, “change begins with you,” completing the work still to be done can, and should, begin with us, as individuals, families, and communities. Specifically, it is necessary that we change our harmful attitudes and behaviors towards those with disabilities. Rather than view, categorize, or patronize those with disabilities as limited, objects of pity or charity, or undesirable others, we should first recognize them as human beings. We should all remember that a person with a disability is a person with inherent worth and we should treat him or her as we would want to be treated. Moreover, we must keep in mind that disability is not inability and that people living with a disability are, like every other person in society, capable individuals. Ultimately, seeing and perceiving people with disabilities as human beings leads to viewing them as individuals who deserve respect and accepting them as active, empowered, efficacious members of society.

Of course, it is likely that the process of change will require time and patience since stigma, discrimination, stereotypes, and negative attitudes towards the disabled are deeply entrenched within some of our communities. Rather than discourage us, however, that fact should inspire us to strengthen our commitment and redouble our efforts to bring about positive change. The Eritrean government and other organizations can also play a role through developing (or expanding) public awareness and education campaigns and supporting local advocacy and community groups.

Another important step that Eritrea can take is to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol (A/ RES/61/106), adopted on 13 December 2006 and opened for signature on 30 March 2007. Currently, there are 177 ratifications to the Convention and 92 ratifications to its Optional Protocol. Importantly, ratification of these landmark international documents will reflect firm political commitment towards ensuring that all Eritreans, regardless of whether they are disabled, can fully realize their rights without discrimination. However, it is crucial that ratification is followed by concrete measures and implementation, lest it become a hollow gesture.

Last, another area where support can be extended to people with disabilities is education. While Eritrea commendably extends free education (across all levels) to every citizen, individuals with disabilities often require special support, including a disability-friendly environment and inclusive curricula, specially-trained teachers, and learning aids or assistive technology, amongst other things. Not only are these measures fundamentally important in protecting and ensuring the rights of those with disabilities, they are also highly beneficial to the entire society. A large body of research illustrates that inclusive education can lead to better learning outcomes for all youth, not only those with disabilities. For example, inclusive education promotes tolerance, enables social cohesion (since it fosters a cohesive social culture), and promotes equal participation within society. Furthermore, it is more cost-effective than separate schooling or institutionalization (the latter of which poses severe consequences and implications), and can encourage inclusive labor markets which lead to a more efficient economy.