Poverty, Rights, and Disability

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The World Health Organization recently released the World Report on Disability (WRD). Over a few weeks, I’m reflecting on some findings from this report.

When people think about disability only in terms of need and lack, then pity results. Pity distances people with disabilities from the rest of the population, turning them into objects in need of charity and excluding them from the same opportunities and rights that non-disabled people enjoy.

People with disabilities have rights as subjects (not objects) in society. The WRD emphasizes the connection between disability and rights with three points:

  • People with disabilities experience inequalities – for example, when they are denied equal access to health care, employment, education, or political participation because of their disability.
  • People with disabilities are subject to violations of dignity – for example, when they are subjected to violence, abuse, prejudice, or disrespect because of their disability.
  • Some people with disability are denied autonomy – for example, when they are subjected to involuntary sterilization, or when they are confined in institutions against their will, or when they are regarded as legally incompetent because of their disability.

Any person who is serious about human rights will place high priority on the rights of people with disabilities and understand the connection between disability and poverty. The WRC highlights these connections:

  • Children with disabilities are less likely to attend school, thus experiencing limited opportunities for human capital formation and facing reduced employment opportunities and decreased productivity in adulthood.
  • People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and generally earn less even when employed. . . . It is harder for people with disabilities to benefit from development and escape from poverty due to discrimination in employment, limited access to transport, and lack of access to resources to promote self-employment and livelihood activities.
  • People with disabilities may have extra costs resulting from disability – such as costs associated with medical care or assistive devices, or the need for personal support and assistance – and thus often require more resources to achieve the same outcomes as non-disabled people. . . . Because of higher costs, people with disabilities and their households are likely to be poorer than non-disabled people with similar incomes.
  • Households with a disabled member are more likely to experience material hardship – including food insecurity, poor housing, lack of access to safe water and sanitation, and inadequate access to health care.

Thus, poverty is more than a lack of material resources. Rather, “the poverty of people with disabilities – and other disadvantaged peoples – comprises social exclusion and disempowerment.”

As I read the WHO report I think about our attitude as Christians toward people with disabilities. Although we emphasize that all people are made in the image of God, we don't do much better than societies in general. For example, although the World Communion of Reformed Churches (of which the CRC is a founding member) emphasizes that we are "Called to Communion, Committed to Justice," disability receives scant attention. Their only mentions of disability on their entire website are brief afterthoughts in their "Section Report on Gender Justice" and "Section Report on Justice in the economy, on the Earth and for all of God’s creation."

If we are serious about our mission as God's agents of renewal in society, our efforts at eliminating injustice, mitigating poverty, and helping people to become self-sustaining need to start with people with disabilities. If every anti-poverty effort, every development initiative, every benevolence committee in every CRC in North America began with the question, "How will this affect people with disabilities?" our work would be transformed dramatically for the better.

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Diakonia Remixed: The Office of Deacon Task Force welcomes ideas on how we could address the challenge that Mark has given in his last paragraph. Areas to address could include training resources, assessment tools, the job description for deacons (in the ordination form and church order), etc.  Post your comments here or e-mail diakonia@crcna.org.

Mark: Expert guidance (or at least practical experience) may be needed to effectively answer your question "How will this affect people with disabilities?" when assessing poverty alleviation efforts. Do you have any guidance to offer?

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Terry, I'm thrilled to hear about the work of your Task Force. CRC Disability Concerns focuses on assisting Christian Reformed Churches and associated ministries in their inclusion of and engagement with people with disabilities. We'll do all we can to help you find the resources you need. Please feel free to be in touch: disabilityconcerns@crcna.org.