Nobody knows how many people with disabilities there are in the world. In doing some basic research, I saw estimates ranging from 300 to 600 million. This is partly a definitional issue – it’s hard to get people to agree what “disabled” means – but mostly is because nobody has ever tried to figure it out. What is clear is that most people with disabilities live in poverty. According to the UN, two-thirds of people with moderate to severe disabilities live below the poverty line. Only two percent of people with disabilities in developing countries have access to basic services.
Take, for example, Rwanda, where poverty is both a cause and an effect of disability. It’s a gorgeous country and home to the rare mountain gorillas. It also had a massive genocide in 1994 during which an estimated 800,000 people were killed – an eighth of the population. Currently, organizations estimate that about 300,000 of the 10 million residents have disabilities. Nearly ten percent of the disabled population has had one or more limbs removed – either hacked off by machete or destroyed by mines, bombs, and bullets during the genocide. The genocide also caused resources like food to be diverted and scarce, resulting in malnutrition, which in turn has caused disability. Despite all that, the genocide is not the major cause of disability in the country – poverty, disease, accidents, lack of medical care and congenital causes are more common.
It’s also one of the poorest countries in Africa. “In 2006, 56.9% of the total population were living below the poverty line and 37.9% were extremely poor. In rural areas about 64.7% of the population were living in poverty… 28% of the rural population was food-insecure and 24% was highly vulnerable to food insecurity.” Poverty is more likely in households headed by females (which are more common after many men were killed during the genocide) and especially in households headed by individuals with HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, attitudes towards people with disabilities in Rwanda are not positive. From a report on disability policy in Rwanda:
‘Social exclusion’ is not a concept that is widely used in Rwanda, but disabled people are both actively and passively excluded in Rwandan society. Rwandans do not value disabled people. Disabled people are seen as objects of charity. They are underestimated and overprotected, and their potential and abilities are not recognised. Disabled children are seen as a source of shame and often hidden away. Name-calling is common. Disabled women find it difficult to get married. Disabled people suffer discrimination in employment.
Disabled family members are sometimes passed over in matters of inheritance. Land and assets are given to others who are deemed to be able to make better use of them, thus leaving the disabled person dependant on family to support them and removing the opportunity for them to lead independent lives. Negative attitudes are particularly strong towards those with severe disabilities, people with intellectual and learning disabilities, blind and deaf people.
Another organization reports that “disabled people are commonly addressed by their disability rather than their real name.”
Rwanda is making significant economic progress since the genocide, with yearly economic growth twice as high as what’s usually expected for a developing nation. It is described by Fortune Magazine as “a business-friendly nation that wants to become a model of private sector development in Africa.” The United Nations awarded Kigali, the capitol city, “the Habitat Scroll of Honour Award for many innovations in building a model, modern city symbolized by zero tolerance for plastics, improved garbage collection and a substantial reduction in crime.”
But it’s unlikely that this economic development will benefit Rwandans with disabilities. The country’s first Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy Plan “had no specific reference to disability or how to include people with disabilities in the process.” While there has been significant foreign investment in the country, that impacts only the urban corporate portion of Rwanda. When nine of every ten adults are subsistence farmers in rural areas, those incoming dollars are extremely unlikely to reach the hands of most of the country’s inhabitants. The countryside isn’t appealing to private investment, especially when there’s no health stability. Any job development programs in rural areas are run by NGOs operating on donations and the products they create ($85 silk-mohair knitted scarves for Whitney Port from MTV!) are marketed based on pity for Rwandans. Those are not sustainable jobs or industries and will not create long term employment for those in rural areas. The most viable avenue for rural economic development has been through microloans through organizations such as Kiva.
Even these limited opportunities for work are unlikely to be available to people with disabilities. PWDs are unlikely to be awarded microloans to run their own businesses and are rarely employed by the NGO projects. As one research report observed:
Disabled people are generally excluded from development activities. They are often extremely poor and are continually in ‘survival mode’, so they literally cannot contribute to development activities, either materially or in terms of their time. They are largely excluded from micro-credit programmes because they lack assets as collateral and are seen as a bad risk. Disabled informants for this study said that they were often not told about development activities in their communities in the first place and when they tried to get involved, they were deliberately excluded.
It’s clear that colonization and ongoing meddling from the Western world has done nothing but contribute to and exacerbate problems like the genocide, so the solution isn’t to charge in there and tell Rwanda what policies it should have and how to run things. They were colonized by Belgium until 1960, for goodness sake. So I can’t say I know what the solution is, and the only advocacy action I can think to take is to encourage/pressure NGOs to be inclusive of PWDs when designing and implementing development projects. There’s a number of disability organizations in Rwanda and I think we’ll have to rely on them to do this work. Some lists of the organizations can be found in this report and in a project report from Handicap International.