I think it's safe to say that when most people think about international development, they don't consider people with disabilities to be a very important factor. But, given that approximately 10% of the world's population experiences some type of disability, and that people with disabilities are most often among the poorest of poor, it becomes clear that international development agendas simply cannot afford to leave out people with disabilities.
Goals of international development--to alleviate poverty, to foster political and economic stability, to improve public health, etc.--are related to disability in many different ways. The first goal of alleviating poverty is the one that I will discuss here. Alleviating poverty means targetting the causes that lead to impoverishment, and disability is one of those causes. Disabling injuries, such as the loss of a limb or major function (like sight or hearing), that result from unsafe working environments or violent conflict, can render a person unable to compete in markets that rely principally on physical labor (like the markets of many developing countries). Moreover, congenital and childhood conditions that lead to life-long disabilities, such as polio, muscular dystrophy, spinabifida, severe malnutrition, and disease, severely limit the opportunities of children--and their families--who experience them.
Yet, the occurence of disability is not, in any way, a hopeless condition. Innovative development programs can be capable of reversing or neutralizing the most damaging effects of disability. Consider, for example, how a good prosthetic limb could compensate for the loss of an actual limb of a landmine victim. Or, consider how early treatment of spinabifida (a condition in which a child is born with a curved spine that can affect her ability to walk, move, and be active) with simple orthotic braces could improve a child's life, present and future. Effective treatments for disabling conditions, either acquired later in life or life-long, have already been in use in developed countries for at least the past three decades. My question is, if advanced technologies like manufacturing equipment, can be given to and successfully absorbed by developing countries for their own use and benefit, then why not treatments for disabilities, as well?
Some innovative projects have already experimented with producing cheap, effective supports for disabiling conditions in developing countries. The results have generally been successful: people with disabilities, who were previously relegated to a life of poverty, were able to work, to support themselves and their families, with the assistance of relatively simple orthotic devices, assistive technology, prosthetics, and basic treatments. To find out more about international efforts that have made a difference, check out these sites:
Rehabilitation International http://www.riglobal.org/index.html
Mobility International http://www.miusa.org/idd
Global Partnership for Disability and Development http://gpdd-online.org/index.php
The point I would like to conclude with is this: by investing in the capacities of people with disabilities, international development agendas can have powerful transformative effects. Disability is not (nor ever should be) equal to a veritable death sentence, and people with disabilities have the ability and the right to be incorporated into all international development programs.