Differently Abled, Not Disabled

In time for International Day of People with Disability this week, London School of Economics and Yale graduate Pooja Yerramilli returns to discuss the importance of disability inclusive development and innovative partnerships to empower persons with disabilities worldwide.

“I am very happy. I stand on my own feet – but it was not always this way,” twenty-six year old Mohammad Rafiuddin told me. Rafiuddin is a Hindi language trainer at Tata Business Support Services Ltd (TBSS) in Andhra Pradesh, India. As his family’s sole wage earner, he uses his annual salary of Rs. 180,000 (US$ 3280) to support his elderly parents. Few would guess that only three years ago, this confident young man was unemployed, depressed, and frustrated with a society that defined him not by his personality or skills but by his crutches.

Rafiuddin was only ten months old when he was diagnosed with polio. His family lived below the poverty line and relied on the sole income of his now retired father, an agricultural worker. They could not afford special equipment or assistance to ease Rafiuddin’s physical struggles. Neither did their village have the infrastructure and transportation services to help persons with disabilities (PwDs). So when Rafiuddin reached childhood, he had no option but to crawl one kilometer to and from school. Against all odds, Rafiuddin earned a B.A. and a B.Ed.

Yet, Rafiuddin soon faced a harsh realization that so many other PwDs share – that he was more crippled by society’s attitudes than by the impairment of his legs. He applied for jobs at ninety schools in his district. Even with his academic qualifications, he was turned away from every single one. “They looked at my disability, not my skills,” Rafiuddin says.

Rafiuddin’s story of struggle is not unique; however, his story of ultimate success is.  According to the World Bank, India has between 40 and 90 million PwDs. The 2002 National Sample Survey Office estimates that the majority of India’s PwDs are illiterate, and only one in four are employed. Further, the UN Development Programme estimates that 80% of PwDs reside in low and middle-income countries. These statistics reflect the cycle between disability and poverty. Namely, poverty increases susceptibility to such disabling conditions as malnutrition, while the stigma associated with disability precludes access to education and employment.

Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, addresses the General Assembly's high-level meeting on "The way forward: a disability inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond."

Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, addresses the General Assembly’s high-level meeting on “The way forward: a disability inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond.”

According to the UN, PwDs constitute the “largest and most disadvantaged group” in the world. Yet the rights and empowerment of PwDs have long been neglected. The Millennium Development Goals make no mention of disability. As a result, according to the International Disability and Development Consortium, PwDs are often left out of development initiatives. Programs to increase school attendance do not accommodate the needs of disabled children, and projects to improve access to water do not consider the physical barriers that PwDs encounter. These challenges are the focus of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities. On December 3, the UN will promote the theme of “Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all.” As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed at the UN High-Level Meeting on Disability and Development in September, “we must not only lift the physical barriers, but also the barriers in attitudes that fuel stigma and discrimination.”

But how exactly can we go about this complex task? Meera Shenoy, founder of the Center for Persons with Disabilities Livelihoods (CPDL) in Andhra Pradesh, believes that in order to break the poverty cycle, society’s conception of disability must change. “Many disability NGOs,” she argues, “focus on the rehabilitation of persons with disabilities, but do not address the fundamental socioeconomic challenges that persons with disabilities face.” To address this need, Shenoy established the CPDL, a public-private partnership with private companies, a private sector foundation (Youth4Jobs), and the government of Andhra Pradesh.

The generic education that many PwDs receive in school does not adequately prepare them for the realities of a competitive job market. CPDL takes an innovative multisectoral approach and unites NGOs, companies, and the government on a single platform – the education and empowerment of young disabled adults. The organization teaches these youth practical skills to prepare them for specific jobs in service and manufacturing. Such partner companies as McDonalds and TBSS recruit from this pool of workers. In this manner, CPDL secured employment for approximately 70% of the 2800 youth trained through its programs.

Shenoy submits that “these youth transform themselves and their societies when they begin sending money to the same families that previously saw them as burdens. They show their peers that they are not disabled, but merely differently abled.” CPDL’s work has also helped improve perceptions of PwDs among employers. “There are many companies that cannot employ PwDs because the jobs require physical labor,” a partner company’s HR manager concedes. “But where we can take them, where they can work, we should employ them. We have a responsibility to put them in jobs where they can use their skills.”

Disability Rights Advocates rally in Washington DC to urge Senators to ratify the UN's Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities

Disability Rights Advocates rally in Washington DC to urge Senators to ratify the UN’s Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities

CPDL’s success shows that the world’s “most disadvantaged group” can indeed participate in the global economy. Thus, it is crucial that we prioritize the needs of the disabled particularly in developing countries, both in rhetoric and in action. As a first step, the United States Senate must ratify the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty does not, as opponents believe, curtail national sovereignty, but merely promotes the international re-conceptualization of PwDs from individuals who require charity to productive members of society entitled to fundamental human rights. The impact that such a revised framework has already made is evident in the hopes and dreams instilled in CPDL’s students. “My ambition is to establish an NGO for the people who are affected by disabilities,” Rafiuddin says. “I want to collect those people and train them – and give them better opportunities, like me.”

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Pooja Yerramilli is a Yale graduate and completed the MSc. Health Policy, Planning, and Financing degree at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the London School of Economics. She has been involved in cancer advocacy efforts for several years, and was an active participant in policy discussions regarding smoking behaviors and insurance coverage of smoking cessation treatments at Yale. She recently worked with the Indian Institute of Public Health and is collaborating with the Harvard Global Equity Initiative on research on the Financing of Cancer Care and Control in Low and Middle Income Countries.

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