Disabled People in International Development

This booklet is presented to create an increasing awareness of disabled persons in the development process for both the disabled persons community and non-governmental organizations involved in international development. Internet publication URLs: www.independentliving.org/docs1/dispeopleintldev1.html and www.independentliving.org/docs1/dispeopleintldev.pdf

Edited by
Diane Driedger
International Development Officer
Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH)
Winnipeg, Canada 1991
With kind permission to reprint on this website from COPOH

På svenska (delvis)

PDF, 78 KB.


Introduction by Diane Driedger
Attitudes and Disabled People
Disabled People and Attitudinal Barriers by Javad Hassan
The Power of the Pen: Empowering Words by April D´Aubin
Women and Disability
Thoughts on Women and Disability by Zohra Raja
Literacy for Whom: Women with Disabilities Marginalized by Diane Driedger and April D´ Aubin
Disabled Women Meet by Diane Driedger
Conflict Situations and Disabled People
Disabled Refugees by Henry Enns
Visit to Angola: Where Civilians are Disabled as a Strategy of LIC by David Werner
Journey to the Middle East by Henry Enns
What kind of Development?
What Do We Mean by Development? by A.K. Dube
Why Asia Rejects Western Disability Advice by M. Miles
Disabled Peoples Development Projects
Project Projimo: A Program For and By Disabled People by David Werner
Multi-Million Dollar Hatchery for Guyana by Julie Lewis
Soweto's Self-Help Factory: An Empowerment Lesson by April D'Aubin
International Solidarity
COPOH's International Involvements by Diane Driedger
Disabled Peoples' International by Diane Driedger
Additional Resources



"Disabled persons in the developing world, instead of taking a wait-and-see attitude and remaining passive, are getting organized to change public attitudes on the one hand and to demonstrate the role they can play in the development of their countries on the other."
Tambo Camara, Mauritania

Disability and international development are related. .The World Health Organization has estimated that 10 percent of the world's population has a disability and 80 percent of the world's people with disabilities live in the developing regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. When families of disabled persons are considered, the United Nations estimates that disability impacts on 25 percent of the community in most countries.

Disability is a functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment; whereas, handicap means the loss or limitation of opportunities to participate in the community on an equal level with others due to physical or social barriers.

There are many causes of disability in developing countries. The UN has estimated that in some countries malnutrition and communicable diseases cause disability in 20 percent of the population. Diseases such as polio are still prevalent in many countries due to a lack of resources to immunize the population.1

Women often become disabled due to their disadvantaged position in society. They tend to receive less food than males and thus they are weaker and more susceptible to disease. In parts of Africa and Asia women are also disabled by female circumcision, the process of removing the clitoris and sometimes the labia in young females. This procedure is done for religious and cultural reasons and is often performed in unsanitary conditions. The procedure can result in pain that inhibits walking, as well as pelvic and urinary infections and mental illness invoked by trauma caused by the procedure.2

While disabled people in the developing world share many of the same barriers to their participation as disabled people in Canada, they have even fewer opportunities. They are in situations of double jeopardy--they are disabled and from the developing regions. And if they are disabled women they experience triple discrimination. In addition, most of these people live in rural areas isolated from appropriate rehabilitation services, and few disabled persons receive training or employment. In the midst of these situations, people with disabilities have been organizing themselves into self-help groups all over the world. In many cases they have lobbied government for changes and started their own income-generating projects.

Attitudinal and Physical Barriers

In the developing world, many people with various disabilities--mental, physical or emotional--are hidden away by their families. Communities may blame a family for the presence of a disabled member, inferring that someone must have sinned and offended God. These attitudes will be discussed further in this booklet under the What Kind of Development? and Attitudes Towards Disabled Persons sections.

Even when disabled persons venture out into the community there are barriers to their participation. Public buses are few and far between in many developing countries and those that exist are not accessible to disabled persons. There are stairs onto the buses that mobility-impaired persons cannot negotiate. In addition, public attitudes often mean that disabled people are ridiculed if seen out in public.

There are few opportunities for education for disabled persons. Again, if the school is far away, especially in the rural areas, there will not be accessible transportation, and a disabled child may not be able to walk to the school. If the child is able to travel to school, then there may be stairs that bar a mobility-impaired child, or a lack of teachers trained in sign language for the deaf child, or teachers trained in Braille for the visually-impaired child.

If there are any opportunities for education, it is usually disabled boys who receive them, and then it is usually through special church or charity run schools operated for disabled children, usually blind or deaf schools. Disabled girls are then kept at home to do housework. Disabled women's low educational levels will be discussed in the Women with Disabilities section of this book.

In the area of employment approximately 99 percent of disabled people are unemployed in the developing countries, and this contrasts with about 61 percent unemployment among disabled Canadians. Lack of employment relates to low educational levels, lack of training and public attitudes that disabled people should be hidden away and taken care of by charities. Due to this situation, disabled people themselves have started their own employment schemes through income-generating projects. Some of these will be discussed further in the section on Disabled People's Projects in this booklet.

Disabled People in the Development Process

While conditions in the developing countries present vast barriers to people with disabilities' participation in everyday life, disabled people have organized themselves to confront these barriers. In the early 1980's, disabled people in developing countries in all regions of the world formed self-help organizations. These organizations both lobby the government for changes and promote public awareness about the abilities and concerns of disabled persons. In addition, many of the groups have started or are starting income-generating projects for their members. This booklet further outlines some of these projects in the Disabled People's Projects section.

There are organizations of disabled persons in over 70 countries and they belong to a worldwide network, Disabled Peoples' International (DPI). The Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH) is the Canadian member of DPI. It is through DPI that COPOH became interested in working with disabled colleagues overseas. Indeed, DPI's self-help philosophy of disabled persons speaking for themselves on their own concerns provides a common ground for disabled people in both the developed and developing worlds.

In its international program, COPOH works in solidarity with disabled people overseas on common issues and learning from our disabled brothers and sisters. (See the last section for more). This booklet is presented to create an increasing awareness of disabled persons in the development process for both the disabled persons community and non-governmental organizations involved in international development.

Diane Driedger, COPOH International Development Officer

1. United Nations, World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons (New York: United Nations, 1983).
2. Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, The International Crime of Genital Mutilation, in Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (New York).


Attitudes and Disabled People

"Religions of the world exhort their followers to act for the benefit of the weak and needy, sick and disabled. Exhortations to do good are rarely needed unless the circumstances are conducive. But building credit towards an afterlife is an inducement. Dropping coins into the beggar's bowl may lead to avoidance of punishment in the afterlife.... If the unseen forces present a poor family with a deformed baby, it is the family's duty to exploit the deformity for financial gain."
M. Miles, Pakistan

Disabled People and Attitudinal Barriers
by Javad Hassan

At the first Asia/Pacific Regional Convention of Disabled Peoples' International (DPI), held in Australia, the question of prime interest was: Why are disabled people at the bottom of the barrel in society and how can they improve their self-image?

This question should merit special attention by the Third World as it is here that disabled people are at the bottom of the barrel and it is here that the image of disabled people needs to be overhauled.

Developed societies in Australia, North America, Western Europe and Japan are solving this image problem through equalization of opportunities in education and employment and through the provision of social security. In these countries, accessibility is improving and phrases like a twisted mind in a twisted body are seldom heard.

In a Third World country like Pakistan, the situation is much different. Here, mass poverty affects disabled people the most (they are the poorest of the poor). Inadequate education and employment opportunities, internalized oppression (a kind of psychological warfare), stereotypes borrowed from medieval English literature, the charity model and the lack of a cohesive movement and a united voice, have collectively ensured disabled people stay at the bottom of the barrel. Poverty cannot be helped; it's the developing countries' fate, kismet, or lot, to remain poor. As the rich get richer and the poor become poorer, disabled people will remain the biggest sufferers for reasons not difficult to understand.

Inadequate education and employment opportunities for disabled people are two more reasons why people with disabilities have low status in a developing society. Some schools simply refuse to accept disabled children on the plea that they will have a bad influence on the non-disabled students!

Special schools are inferior to normal public schools and children who pass out from these schools are not accepted for higher studies in normal schools and colleges, either because of their disabilities, low standard of education, or the commonest of all excuses: inaccessibility. (In one particular case, a home taught disabled student who had passed public school exams was refused admission in a college because the dean was of the opinion that your presence would disturb others.) Small wonder that few disabled persons in Pakistan are qualified enough to land good jobs.

As a result of such attitudes and unequal opportunities, many disabled children are forced to seek vocational training in trades like dress-making, book-binding, basket- and chair-weaving, etc. without completing even their primary education. Although this gives them a measure of self-esteem by affording them a chance to earn some money and not be a burden on society, their lack of education and lowly jobs ensures their status, and therefore, self-image, will remain poor. In some cases, parents also hesitate to invest in their disabled children's education thinking it's a bad investment.

In a society where even well-qualified, non-disabled people have a tough time getting jobs, what chance do people with disabilities have? Even if a disabled person is as qualified as his non-disabled competitor (which is rare), the employer will always prefer the latter.

Social security, like unemployment allowance, is unheard of for disabled persons in developing countries, forcing many disabled persons who cannot get jobs to remain dependent on their parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives, or resort to begging.

Internalized oppression is a process whereby disabled people are made to believe what is said about them is true (i.e. terms like invalid, phrases like twisted mind in a twisted body and stereotypes). They are pushed to agree to or accept the invalidating feelings. Thus a disabled person will believe that he/she is sick or at least, inferior, has forfeited his/her right to a full life, cannot make decisions for him/herself, is the victim of a malevolent fate rather than a malevolent social system, is a burden on society and that his/her needs are met only by the kindness of people, based on their compassion and not their respect. Such image- and ego-destroying tactics are quite common in our society.

The disabled person's image and self-esteem also suffer because of the charity model. Traditionally, disabled persons have been looked upon as objects of charity and pity. Their institutions are usually run on charity and donations: funds are raised through emotive appeals and disabled persons are often portrayed as pitiable beings in need of sympathy.

Charity does not only mean giving money. It often comes disguised as quota systems within employment markets and educational institutions. Under such systems, disabled people are admitted to schools/colleges and employed in various government and semi-government departments whether they deserve to be or not. The quota must be filled! Isn't this charity? The proper thing to do would be first, to provide for an accessible educational and employment environment and then to ensure equal opportunities through legislation.

The self-esteem of disabled people can be greatly enhanced if they are given equal chances in education--including higher education.

And in employment, merit, and merit alone, should be the criteria. Certain jobs in which disabilities do not present any handicaps (like sedentary or desk jobs for people using wheelchairs) should be made available to properly qualified disabled persons.

Social security in the form of an unemployment allowance for unemployed and unemployable disabled persons is a must if they are to be saved from becoming a burden on their families or on the community. Similarly, families supporting disabled members should be given some form of support to ease their burden.

Other factors or influences which contribute to low self-image of disabled people are the following:

  • Advertising, which glorifies beautiful people and implies that people with disabilities are misfits without a place in society. We must lobby for more realistic advertising which includes people with disabilities.
  • The work ethic, which makes people valuable only if they can contribute work and taxes to the community, implies that people with disabilities, who cannot easily produce goods or services, are inferior second-class citizens.
  • The medical model, which portrays disabled people as sick and the permanent recipients of medical care, has also played its part to instill a poor self-image. We are all familiar with the term invalid which is Latin for worthless.

The most important reasons for the low self-image of disabled people, however, is this: the lack of opportunity to handle their own affairs. History bears witness to the fact that people who can handle their own affairs or are strong enough to snatch this right from others, are always looked upon with respect and enjoy greater self-esteem than those who sit back and allow things to be done to or for them.

In almost all the developing countries, the affairs of disabled persons are controlled by non-disabled persons. Their institutions, special education centres, training centres and sheltered workshops are all planned and run by non-disabled experts. Money is provided by non-disabled people, the highly educated and rich are all non-disabled. So where does this leave disabled persons? At the bottom of the barrel, of course!

Unless people with disabilities learn to fight for their rights and until they learn to be truly independent (meaning able to handle their own affairs by ridding themselves of the guardianship of non-disabled people), they will never be able to enhance their image and self-esteem.

The independent living movement and Disabled Peoples' International (DPI), with which we all are familiar, offer some hope. They are beacons of light at the end of a long dark tunnel. The light has reached the West. When will it reach the East?... In twenty... forty... fifty years, maybe more? If it is to reach us at all, it will require a revolution of thought and practice on the part of the disabled people.

Javad Hassan is President of the Association of Physically Disabled Persons, Islamabad, Pakistan.
This article first appeared in Vox Nostra No. 2 (1990).

The Power of the Pen: Empowering Words
by April D'Aubin

Language, a powerful tool, affects our perceptions about ourselves, our neighbors and the world we inhabit. Recognizing the power that words have, people with disabilities have been working to create a new language of disability which portrays disabled persons in a positive manner. Publications produced by persons with disabilities and their organizations reflect this new lexicon on disability.

Currently efforts are underway to convince the media to adopt this new terminology, because they are the image makers in our society as they reach a mass audience. Many disabled persons have made an individual commitment to this change process by becoming media monitors.

A media monitor acts as a watchdog for negative portrayals of disabled people and responds to these by contacting the responsible source to provide constructive feedback. Media monitors may want to watch for the following:

  • the use of emotional descriptions such as unfortunate, afflicted, stricken, confined, burden, defective;
  • articles treating disabled persons as a homogenous group, eg. the disabled;
  • pieces which arouse fear, guilt, pity;
  • reports which cast disabled persons as superhuman;
  • pictures which show persons with disabilities as passive recipients of charity, services, etc.;
  • cartoons which utilize negative stereotypes of disability to make a point or joke;
  • photos which maximize the differences between disabled and non-disabled people.

When responding to a negative portrayal, a monitor may want to raise the following points with the media person responsible for the piece:

  • A disability does not limit all areas of activity
  • Impairment, disability and handicap are not interchangeable terms. The UN's World Program of Action defines these terms.

Impairment: any loss of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.

Disability: any restriction (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity considered to be within the norm for human beings.

Handicap: a disadvantage that limits or prevents the fulfillment of typical social roles. Handicap is the function of the relationship between disabled persons and their environment.

  • Reports should treat disabled subjects with respect and dignity.
  • Disability and sickness are not synonyms. Disabled persons should not be portrayed as being sick. Avoid medical terminology (i.e. the patient).
  • Describing technical aids in factual rather than emotive terms. (Instead of saying wheelchair bound or confined to a wheelchair substitute wheelchair user or person who uses a wheelchair).
  • If disability is not a central element in the story, don't report it.
  • Avoid obsolete words that refer to physical and mental/psychiatric disability (i.e. cripple, feeble-minded, idiot, moron, imbecile, lunatic, etc.).
  • Focus on the relevant issue rather than the disability. Avoid portrayals that have as their theme tragedy, suffering, struggle against insurmountable odds.
  • In photos and graphics present disabled persons in integrated settings performing a variety of activities.

Avoid Old Speak Terminology:

Victim, cripple, wheelchair bound/confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair architect, the disabled, deformed, feeble-minded, idiot, moron, imbecile, mongolism, incompetent, insane, lunatic, maniac, unsound mind, mental disease, mentally ill.

Substitute New Speak Terminology:

Disabled citizens, disabled persons, persons with a disability, person who uses a wheelchair, architect who uses a wheelchair, people with disabilities, person who is disabled by (name condition), person with mental disability, person with psychiatric disability.

Members of the media are encouraged to adopt New Speak Terminology.

April D'Aubin is COPOH's Research Analyst.
This article first appeared in Conquest (Sept. 1989), p. 4.


Women and Disability


"So the blind girl leads a vegetable existence with nothing to look forward to except a dependent life as a burden on the charity of parents or relatives. She is usually hidden from visitors and strangers because the family is ashamed of her and because if the fact that there is a blind girl in the family were to become known, it might prove to be an obstacle in arranging the marriage of her siblings..."
Dr. Fatima Shah, Pakistan

Thoughts On Women And Disability
by Zohra Rajah

In the world at large, whether in the business, scientific or educational fields, we women are already considered second class citizens. But as disabled women, we experience dual discrimination--firstly because of our sex, and secondly because of our disability.

The discrimination can be quite severe, it can affect all aspects of our lives: education, employment, economic status, marriage, family and rehabilitation.


Many disabled women are being deprived of their rights and society is being deprived of their talents and abilities do to lack of education. In many societies it is difficult to convince people that able-bodied women need to be educated; for disabled women it is worse. Due to traditional role perceptions, disabled women are given less encouragement to continue with education, despite the fact that, more often than not, they will need to be self-supporting.

The abilities of disabled women are often underestimated and channeled into vocational abilities like needlework, handicrafts, dressmaking, carpet weaving, etc. Very few foresee that disabled women may have the potential to be good business people, lawyers, administrators and programmers. Without education she earns a low income and lacks the opportunities to improve her skills.


Disabled people in general, and disabled women in particular, often find themselves unemployed, underemployed or in low-paying jobs.

Two laws have been passed in Mauritius--one for employment and the other for vocational training of disabled people. Our hope is that these new laws will facilitate disabled women getting the chance to be trained and get better jobs.

Marriage and Family

In marriage too, disabled women encounter more discrimination than able-bodied women because society judges physical appearance before considering our true selves. As disabled women it is doubly difficult for us to be accepted and our own sexuality discovered. The more obvious the disability, the more likely we will be thought of as asexual. Frequently, as disabled women, we begin to believe that we have no rights to sexual feelings.

Society may delude itself into believing that we are asexual, but this is certainly not true. We have the same feelings as any other person. Our disability may have some effect on our inner emotions, but it does not kill them as society assumes. In Eastern countries especially, people think that a disabled woman has no feelings. If an able-bodied man loves her, his parents will make fierce objections if their son attempts to marry a disabled woman.

If a woman becomes disabled after her marriage, she is sure that her husband will leave her for another wife. Or if she has children she will be judged incapable of looking after them. The children will be put in the care of grandparents.

Disabled women are further subjected to various other problems concerning pregnancy, child rearing and household work after marriage. Yet a recent study showed that a woman even with her lower half paralyzed can give birth to and rear a healthy child.


There is a lack of women's organizations. We disabled women should continue to group together. The disabled women's movement should focus on all types of women and deal with the oppression they face. By expanding society's awareness to women's issues concerning their second class status, we will also help disabled women to push for equal rights. As disabled women we need to be considered as women first and our disabilities as a part that makes us special.

We need legislation for buildings to have ramps, free from stairs and other obstacles, so that disabled women can do their work on wheelchairs or crutches and not depend on others.

Disabled women need to become more involved in all aspects of life. We need to educate society to look beyond our physical problems and accept us as we are. After all, there are quite a few disabled women who have given us the proof that our handicaps should not stop us from going ahead with our lives, such as the young Indian girl, who after having one leg amputated, now performs classical Indian dance.

Zohra Rajah of Mauritius, Africa,
Deputy Chairperson of Disabled Peoples' International (DPI).
This article first appeared in Vox Nostra No. 2 (1989).

Literacy For Whom: Women With Disabilities Marginalized
by Diane Driedger and April D'Aubin

Almost half of the people with disabilities in Canada are illiterate,1 and even greater numbers are illiterate in the developing regions of the world. Disabled women are less likely to be literate than disabled men.

There has been much discussion on issues pertaining to literacy during the United Nations International Literacy Year, 1990. Many articles focus on such topics as: the definition of literacy, the value assumptions underlying literacy campaigns,2 why literacy is an important concern, programming components, the social benefits of literacy and enhancing literacy skills at various stages in the life cycle. Such topics address the important questions of what, when, where, why. Consideration also needs to be given to WHO requires literacy programming, because those with low literacy skills are not a homogeneous group. Disabled people, particularly disabled women, must be given specific consideration within the learner population. Literacy is both a gender issue and a disability issue.

Disabled People Forgotten

It is readily apparent that disabled people are not always considered when literacy is examined by mainstream researchers. For example, Broken Words, the Southam News Report on Literacy in Canada, failed to look at people in chronic care institutions or nursing homes when calculating the numbers of people who cannot read in this country.3 The World Charter on Education for All, the mission statement for International Literacy Year, mentions disabled people only once. Disabled activists report that major international conferences on literacy, such as the UN World Conference on Education for All, fail to address the needs of disabled people in a meaningful way.4

If the systemic barriers encountered by women and men with disabilities within education programs are to be eliminated, it is essential to consider disabled people's needs. Without attention to the needs of people with disabilities society, will continue to produce an underclass which has the double whammy of disability and illiteracy.5 This article will highlight the barriers facing women with disabilities in becoming literate in both developed and developing countries. It will also discuss how to make literacy programs accessible to women and men with disabilities.

International Literacy Year intersects the UN Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-92). The UN's World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons established for all countries the goal of equalization of opportunities, which it defines as, the process through which the general systems of society, such as the physical and cultural environment . . . educational and work opportunities, cultural and social life . . . are made accessible to all.6 The equalization of opportunities concept implies a vigorous program of barrier removal.

Equalization of opportunities remains a major concern confronting organizations of disabled persons. All over the world people with various disabilities have formed their own self-help organizations to advocate with one voice for improvements in the status of disabled persons. There are many similarities between disabled people's struggle for empowerment and the feminist movement. In Canada, the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH), a national cross-disability advocacy organization of disabled persons, works to ensure that the needs of disabled people are addressed by generic service delivery systems as opposed to segregated approaches solely for disabled persons, such as separate school programs for disabled children. Organizations such as COPOH and Disabled Peoples' International (DPI), the international self-help organization of disabled people, work to decrease disabled people's marginalization in society.

Historically, disabled people have been oppressed and marginalized, and continue to be disadvantaged throughout the world. In Canada in 1986, 39.2 percent of disabled persons aged 15 to 64 were employed compared to 70 percent of the non-disabled population in the same group. Statistics Canada's Health and Activity Limitation Survey (HALS) also indicated that 4.3 of disabled people have a university degree compared to 10.3 of the non-disabled population. Severe disability has a negative impact upon educational attainment.7 A Decima survey found that 45 percent of severely disabled respondents had eight years of education or less compared with 25 percent of people with mild disabilities.8 Yutta Fricke of Disabled Peoples' International (DPI) asserts that, the vast majority of the world's 500 million disabled people are illiterate and suggests that 350 million disabled people living in developing countries are without education.9 The disadvantaged position of disabled people is a direct function of the systemic discrimination they experience in every facet of life.

Disabled Women Marginalized

Women with disabilities experience double jeopardy, because they experience the negative effects of sexism and disability-based discrimination. In Canada, disabled women's take home pay is just slightly more than half of what non-disabled women earn. In 1986, HALS indicated that non-disabled Canadian women earned $8,800 per annum whereas disabled women earned $4,810.10 Disabled women in all societies are the poorest of the poor.

Women the world over are more likely to be illiterate than men. And disabled women are even more likely to be illiterate. Women with disabilities have added barriers that keep them from learning and these barriers are most acute in developing countries. Barriers such as lack of accessible transportation, steps into the school and families wanting to keep their disabled daughters at home to do chores prevent women with disabilities from attending school. Some disabled women's personal stories will be shared to illustrate these concerns. As Helen Levine, a feminist writer, explains, The point in sharing one woman's experience, any woman's experience, is to get at the commonalties in every woman's life, to link personal and political in the service of change.11

Joyce Joseph, a woman from Trinidad and Tobago disabled by polio during childhood, received little schooling growing up. She walked with difficulty, so her father built a small go-cart to pull her to school in as a small child. When she outgrew the cart, at age eight, her formal schooling ended. She then received some lessons from a tutor, but this did not last long as the tutor moved away. Thus Joyce describes herself as self-taught. Joyce learned dress-making skills from her sister and started her own business. Why couldn't Joyce just use a wheelchair, crutches or ride the bus to school? A wheelchair or crutches were not available to her, her family did not have a car and the bus seldom travelled into the area where she lived. These were barriers to education.

Korisha Mohammed, also from Trinidad and disabled by polio as a four-year old, received little education. Even though her disability was not severe, she wears a leg brace, her family decided that she should remain in an institution after she became disabled. She lived there until she was thirteen years old, and received an elementary schooling during this time. After she was released from the institution, she was unable to continue her schooling, because there was no transportation available to the school and her parents could not afford a private tutor. But she has had secretarial training and has endeavored to complete her education. She is currently studying for her A levels (university entrance) in English literature. She is also working as a Stenographer III in one of the government ministries. Korisha says that because she was in a special school, she was not able to interact with other children. As a result, I feel socially handicapped as an adult still.

Eileen Giron, a Disabled Peoples' International World Council member from El Salvador, explains that in Latin American countries families do not view education for disabled women as a priority. Families continue to be very protective of women with disabilities, especially blind women, not allowing them to go outside the home unaccompanied; consequently, it can be very difficult for these women to receive training of any type. Inaccessibility compounds the problem. Giron reported that the Catholic University in San Salvador is inaccessible, and that its administration is unreceptive to suggestions to retrofit the campus.

While more developed countries have government subsidized public education systems and a higher overall literacy rate for women, they are not immune to erecting barriers to disabled women. Judy Heumann, a disabled American activist described her educational experience as a wheelchair user: I'd ride the bus for two hours in the morning and two in the evening--I'd get to school and not exactly get down to hard learning. Then I'd have lunch, then an hour rest period...In between that, we were being taken out for physical therapy and speech therapy. Every once in awhile some academics were taught, but nothing to strain the brain very much.14 There is still a tendency for the school system to believe that disabled children do not really need an education as they will not be working or contributing to society. The assumption is that they will either work in sheltered workshops or stay at home. Indeed, in Judy's class, this was the scenario in the late 1960's. Judy was the first student from that classroom program to enter high school. Eventually she became a teacher.

Obviously, attitudes are a large barrier to disabled girls receiving an education. In developing countries many girls are kept at home to help with household chores and rarely leave their yards to appear in public. Often, in developing countries families are ashamed of their disabled children--the community views the presence of a disabled member as a punishment for some sin that the family has committed. Fatima Shah, a founder of the disabled people's movement in Pakistan, reiterates, So the blind girl leads a vegetable existence with nothing to look forward to, except a dependent life as a burden on the charity of parents or relatives.12

When there are few opportunities for basic education or training, disabled boys, not girls, usually receive them. And often blind or deaf boys will go to special schools run by the churches. In a few cases, disabled girls may also receive an education in church institutions. Rosallie B. Bukumunhe of Uganda came to the attention of two Anglican church missionaries who helped her gain an education. She is now a stenographer in her country, where fewer women than men in general receive a basic education.13

Society tends to view disabled women as less important to educate, as it maintains that they are passive recipients of care. As Zohra Rojah, a mobility-impaired activist from Mauritius and Deputy Chairperson of Disabled Peoples' International, explains: In many societies it is difficult to convince people that able-bodied women need to be educated; for disabled women it is worse. Due to traditional role perceptions, disabled women are given less encouragement to continue with education...15

Literacy can be viewed as a cross-disability issue; that is, it affects not one disability group, but all groups (physical, sensory, mental). Some disabled people have been denied the opportunity to obtain an education. This is especially true of people who have been labelled mentally handicapped. Peter Park of People First, a Canadian organization of people labelled mentally handicapped, explains the consequences of institutionalization, Few members of People First know how to read or write. Many of us were not educated because we were institutionalized. Many of us are afraid to speak our mind or even organize for fear of being put back into an institution. We rely on tape for information but we need not only books on tape but also notes from meetings along with reports and other information. Most of the time it is really hard to get those kinds of things on tape.16

People with other disabilities also experience poor attachment to the education system. Decima researchers found that 21 percent of their disabled respondents, who were disabled while in school, reported lengthy interruptions in their education. Twenty percent said that they changed school because of their disability and 20 percent of that group reported attending segregated classes.17

Segregated education continues to be a reality even in industrialized countries of the world such as Canada, and in some developing countries they are considered to be the preferred route to follow. Ed Wadley of Frontier College in Toronto states, People who are disabled tend to be slotted. We have a system that labels, categorizes, and pigeonholes people, especially those with cerebral palsy. They're thought not to be capable and they're streamed by appearances.18

Deaf people have many concerns related to education and literacy. And the issue is colored because cultural issues are involved, as American Sign Language (ASL) is a bona fide language. This factor prompts deaf people to prefer and advocate for education in separate deaf schools, just as Francophone Canadians insist that French be the language of instruction for their children. Many deaf people call for ASL to be the medium of instruction in deaf classrooms. Canadian deaf activists Carver and Doe write, Education, however, as a social process does not begin in kindergarten and end at university or post secondary studies. Education or access to education becomes possible at the earliest age and ends with death... For the deaf the experience of education is equally lifelong but it is also oppressive.19 For Carver and Doe the education of deaf people is oppressive, because it is controlled primarily by upper class hearing men.20 Deaf people are calling for greater involvement in and control of deaf education.

The Canadian Association of Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities points out that some people with learning disabilities are considered to be functionally illiterate. One critical issue for people with learning disabilities is access to books on tapes. A medical certificate is required currently to get access to talking books in libraries. This acts as a significant barrier to literacy for people with this disability, as medical doctors have little contact with learners and often no particular expertise in this area.

Where to From Here?

The problem of illiteracy affects the general population of every country. The barriers that confront disabled women will need to be confronted by the public education system in every country as a matter of course, not as a special consideration or afterthought. A two-pronged approach is required: improved access in the generic education system and adult literacy programs which include the needs of disabled people.

Like all disadvantaged groups, people with disabilities often require remedial measures to address past discrimination. Any remedial programming, such as adult literacy training, needs to pay special attention to the concerns of women with disabilities, as these women are most likely to be in need of such programming due to the consequences of double jeopardy. Adult literacy programs must not replicate current barriers found in education systems throughout the world: inaccessible architecture, discriminatory attitudes, medicalization of disability. Adult literacy programs should ensure that they reside in accessible locations, include line items in their budgets to meet access needs of disabled students (ie. alternate media supplies such as taped books for blind and print handicapped persons), ensure that programs are located in areas serviced by parallel transportation services, consult with organizations of disabled people for advice on how to best meet the learning needs of disabled people.

Generic education systems all over the world must begin to prioritize the needs of disabled students. For example, Khalfan Khalfan of DPI reports that the government of Zanzibar/Tanzania does not allocate any funding for the education of disabled people. When the needs of disabled learners are recognized and addressed, disabled children, particularly girls, will receive the same quality of education as the rest of the population, not a watered down handicapped version. The integration approach, disabled persons argue, is the only way for disabled children to learn about how the rest of the world interacts and learns. Indeed, other children will be exposed to disabled peers and learn that they are the same as any one else. Attitudinal changes happen most effectively with children.

With acceptance from one's peers and educational opportunities, disabled girls will be in a better position to choose the kinds of careers that they are capable of doing. Often, as Zohra Rajah of Mauritius explains, The abilities of disabled women are often under-estimated and channeled into vocational abilities like needlework, handicrafts, dress making, carpet weaving, etc. Very few foresee that women may have the potential to be good business people, lawyers, administrators, programmers...21 With education, the women with disabilities of the world can achieve their FULL potential and contribute to our societies.


    1. Cathy McPherson, Poverty and Disability: How to Break the Connection, ARCHTYPE 8 (April 1989): 3.

    2. The New Internationalist 180 (February 1988).

    3. Ed Wadley, Teach Someone to Read!, Ontario March of Dimes Advocate (Summer 1990) p. 3.

    4. Yutta Fricke, International Year for Literacy: Education for All?, Vox Nostra No. 1 (1990): 6.

    5. Wadley, Teach..., p. 3.

    6. UN, World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons. New York: United Nations, 1983. p. 3.

    7. Disabled People Must Fight Barriers to Overcome Literacy Problems Ontario March of Dimes Advocate (Summer 1990): 12.

    8. Disabled People... p. 12.

    9. Fricke, International... p. 6.

    10. Status of Disabled Persons Secretariat, Basic Statistical Information on Persons With Disabilities in Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1990, Table 7.

    11. Helene Levine, Feminist Counselling: Approach or Technique? in Joan Turner and Lois Emery eds. Perspectives on Women in the 1980's. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1983, p. 74.

    12. Dr. Fatima Shah, The Blind Woman and Her Family, and Participation in the Community (Rural), in Diane Driedger and Susan Gray Dueck eds. Imprinting Our Image: An International Anthology by Women with Disabilities, (book manuscript), p. 128.

    13. Rosallie B. Bukumunhe, I Will Definitely Go, in Imprinting...

    14. Judy Heumann, Growing Up: Creating a Movement Together, in Imprinting..., p. 270.

    15. Zohra Rajah, Thoughts on Women and Disability, Vox Nostra No. 2 (1989): 10.

    16. Literacy and Persons with Disabilities, Destination (1990): 6.

    17. Disabled People... p. 12.

    18. Disabled People... p. 12.

    19. Roger J. Carver and Tanis M. Doe, Rehabilitation Or Oppression? Options for the Humanization of the Deaf, Canadian Journal of the Deaf 3 (1990): 91-92.

    20. Carver and Doe, Rehabilitation... p. 91.

    21. Rajah, Thoughts... p. 10.

A version of this article first appeared in Women's Education des Femmes (Jan. 1991).

Disabled Women Meet
by Diane Driedger

Disabled women from 12 Caribbean countries, Canada and the U.S. gathered in Dominica July 18 - 22, 1988 to share with each other and to identify and to develop leadership skills. The women were there for a Disabled Women in Development Seminar sponsored by the North American and Caribbean Region of Disabled Peoples' International.

The 65 disabled women and 20 disabled men discussed employment, sexuality, parenting, independent living and leadership skills. At the end of the conference, the participants made recommendations which they will take back to their Governments for action. Among these were calls for Governments to provide daycare for children with disabilities and to enforce existing legislation for non-supportive fathers to support their children. Indeed, through the seminar discussions it become apparent that many women with disabilities in the Caribbean are single parents whose partners are not supporting their children. Non-disabled Caribbean women also share in the same difficulty. Often men are not interested in having disabled women as their wives, but are willing to have children with them. Disabled women are often viewed as damaged goods.

In addition, the seminar participants called on governments to introduce legislation, prohibiting discrimination against disabled people in employment, which is around 99 percent in the Caribbean and about 61 percent in North America. Disabled persons at present know that they must also start their own businesses. Already, some of the disabled women have their own ventures in areas such as dressmaking and vending.

The participants also called for governments to ensure accessible education for children with disabilities. In the Caribbean disabled persons are often unable to attend school, because there is no transportation for them to attend. Generally, disabled people in the Caribbean are not well-educated and literacy levels are low.

Time and time again, the seminar discussions revealed that the most pressing issue for disabled people in the Caribbean is to come out of hiding from their homes into the community. Ways to encourage disabled persons to move out were discussed, such as self-help organizations holding events or visiting disabled persons in their homes and encouraging them to attend meetings. Disabled people's reluctance to move out is a result of social attitudes--disabled persons are generally ridiculed and stared at. In fact, their presence in a family is sometimes viewed by the community as a punishment from God.

The seminar's greatest impact was in creating solidarity among disabled women to face social barriers. As Marie McQueen, a mobility-impaired woman from Guyana explained:

It [the seminar] has helped me and others gain a feeling of unity with other people with disabilities. Sometimes it feels like it's only me, but there are disabled people all over the world... You tend to draw strength from each other.

The seminar also encouraged disabled women to go home and influence their Governments, women's organizations and societies for changes for disabled people. As Joyce Joseph, a crutch-user from Trinidad and Tobago explained:

We need disabled persons to be in places where they can make decisions for themselves. I see Disabled Peoples' International having a real place within the disabled community.

This article first appeared in Conquest 1 (Jan. 1989), p. 3.