Disability, a cause and result of poverty

Disability Issues with Dr Christine Peta

About 15 percent of the world’s population comprises of people with disabilities, but very little is known about their economic conditions, particularly in developing countries (Mitra, 2013). Disability increases the risk of poverty, whilst poverty in itself increases the risk of people becoming disabled. Before I start unpacking the subject, I would like to first of all explain the difference between two types of poverty, relative poverty and absolute poverty.Relative poverty is the kind of poverty that is found in most Western societies where people may have the basics, but they are unable to enjoy other priviledges that are offered by society. For example, people may have food to eat, but they may not be able to afford to buy a television set or to go on holiday, thereby relegating their poverty to relative status in relation to the society in which they live (Holmes, 2007).

Absolute poverty is the kind where people are unable to meet their basic needs, such as not having food to eat, or access to healthcare.

Such is the kind of poverty that is found in some communities in Africa, and I could equate it to the nature of poverty that is articulated on the UN fact sheet in relation to Sustainable Development Goal No 1 on Poverty.

The UN fact sheet indicates that about 836 million people in the world are still living in extreme poverty and one-in-five people in developing countries lives on less than $1,25 per day, with the majority of poor people being located in South Asia and sub-Sararan Africa.

Consequently, poor people may struggle to lay their hands on timeous medical treatment resulting in the manifestation of various kinds of illnesses and disabilities (Eide & Ingstad 2011), in circumstances where poverty becomes a cause of disability.

Diseases that could otherwise have been treated such as ear or eye infections may result in total blindness or hearing losses due to delays in getting health care (Eide & Ingstad 2011). Furthermore, an illness may strike when there is no money in the house to pay at the healthcare centre.

The situation is worse for women, because in some African communities, it takes a male member of the family to make a decision as to whether family resources should be spent on taking a woman to a health care centre or not. When such decisions are not made on time, illnesses may develop to the point of causing disabilities that would otherwise have been avoided.

Whenever relationships go wrong, custody of the children often rests with women, resulting in them assuming greater responsibility alongside a lower or zero income.

In addition, women are often assigned the role of caring for severely disabled family members, hence they may be unable to leave home to go in search of employment.

The phrase “feminisation of poverty” was invented up by the United Nations to refer to an apparent trend in which an increasing number of those living in poverty are women (Holmes 2007). However, and as previously indicated, the irony of the matter is that if there is a shortage of resources in the home, healthcare for women often falls to the bottom of the priority list.

As a result, the health of women deteriorates and remains generally poor compared to that of men, as symbolised by the millions of women and girls who have been disabled by, for example, malnutrition in most developing countries (Boylan 1991).

On the other hand, disability is a cause of poverty in the sense that on a worldwide scale people with disabilities are commonly deprived of educational and employment opportunities (Emmert, 2005).

In some instances, children with disabilities are not enrolled in school thereby setting them up on a highway of narrow employment opportunities and a reduction in productivity or income in their adulthood.

People who acquire disabilities in their adulthood, may be unable to continue to go to work, thereby reducing the family income with the resultant risk of poverty.

Furthermore, disability may result in increased healthcare expenditure given the fact that some disabilities may demand constant healthcare, transport, personal care and assistive devices (Mitra et al, 2013).

Mitra et al notes that whilst the link between poverty and disability has been identified, research and information on the subject in developing countries is still limited.

However, developed nations such as the US have clearly demonstrated an increase in the rate of childhood disability in poor and single-parent headed families. A study carried out in South Africa compared people with disabilities and their non-disabled counterparts in relation to key poverty indicators among Xhosa-speaking people in resource-poor areas in the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces. The study revealed that people with disabilities are still disadvantaged in relation to education and employment, thereby increasing their levels of poverty (Loeb et al, 2008).

Way forward

Research agendas on poverty should pay special attention to people with disabilities, in an effort to enhance the crafting of policy in relation to their access to education and employment. In line with the assertion made by Mitra et al (2013), I call for further research on disability and poverty, with the aim of highlighting the ways in which disability results in poverty and vice versa.

It is useful to define the specific nature of the link between disability and poverty within the local context, in an effort to make meaningful recommendations for policy at the country level.

The focus should not only be on the ways in which poverty among persons with disabilities should be reduced but also on how to reduce the occurrence of disability among poor people.

It would be useful to incorporate a gendered approach in the research agenda thereby highlighting the different ways in which men and women with disabilities experience poverty and disability in accordance with their gender affiliation, as well as the different ways in which poor men and poor women are vulnerable to disability.

Dr Christine Peta is a public healthcare practitioner who, among other qualifications, holds a PhD in Disability Studies. Be part of the international debate on how best to nurture a society which is more accessible, supportive and inclusive of disabled people. Partner with Disability Centre for Africa (DCFA): whatsApp, 0773-699-229; website, www.dcfafrica.com; e-mail, [email protected]

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