How to build environments that empower disabled people?
We have all heard the phrase before; people are generally shaped by their environment. Environment for the purpose of this blog means surroundings or conditions in which a person lives or operates. For many disabled people that environment is often shaped from birth when medical science and society imposes a deficit characterisation on the Disabled child. On the other hand, for people who acquire impairment (disabilities) later in life, their environment can dramatically change to make life more difficult and challenging.
With possibly good intentions or motivation, the medical industry (which includes rehab and other related disciplines) developed clinical interventions to make a Disabled child/person more normal but in the process and overtime attached too much importance to the “a disabled person cannot do” instead of focusing on “what they can do”. In designing equipment and other solutions Disabled people’s input was rarely sought and a one fits all model was foisted on many which created resentment and distrust between Disabled people and the medical industry.
However, medical interventions have improved in Western countries and the voice of Disabled people have started being heard in the design and application of medical solutions. The socio-political improvements and the establishments of systems have also created a better environment for Disabled people to thrive and acquire citizenship rights and responsibilities just like their non-disabled peers. I am not saying we have a perfect situation or systems in Western countries, however, the environment older Disabled people lived in is certainly different from the environment young Disabled people are living now and we can clearly see the difference in life outcomes for both groups.
In developing countries (especially in Africa) Disabled people are still living in environments that have huge impacts on their life chances and the right to be included in mainstream society. I can legitimately write about the environment I grew up in. Born during the Nigerian civil war of the late 60s, I inexplicable escaped vaccination for the polio virus and at age 2 became semi-paralysed from the effect of contracting the polio virus. My immediate environment was, however, my educated family unit. I come from a middle class educated family and thus, had access to education and resources children born into such environments had. Although some attempts were made to bully me in my early years in mainstream primary school, I never largely felt the negative effects most Disabled people felt growing up in Nigeria.
My story might be alien to many Disabled children of my generation; even today many Disabled children growing up in my home country are still experiencing an environment that stifles their creativity and, in most cases, push them into severe poverty. Anytime I visit I still see armies of Disabled people crawling on their bare knees on dusty streets or attending special schools that are ill-equipped to deliver any form of education that can prepare the few pupils in them for adult life. I know organisations like Leonard Cheshire have done some great work in Nigeria in the past and even possibly now but Nigeria has a colossal population and there is a limited reach to what a single organisation can do in such a vast country.
Moreover, in most African countries including Nigeria there are decent health and social care policies in place (even legislation). However, implementation has always been their major failings. An environment like that breeds isolation, poverty, illiteracy and lack of aspiration amongst a vast population of Disabled people. Don’t get me wrong, it is still possible for Disabled people in these environments to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, deprivation and lack of education the reality is most people are stuck in that environment.
To address problems and issues disabled people face in these environments, a coordinated and partnership working approach is necessary. This is what the Global Disability Innovation Hub has been doing since 2017. The hub through –– a hard-working team –– has developed an assistive technology and innovation strategy to promote change in countries of the Global South. Through AT2030 and other programmes, the GDIH has gathered together formidable partnerships to tackle the lack of affordable and accessible AT in many countries of the Global South.
It is clear to me that Disabled people need allies and allies can come from any discipline or background. I have often heard people suggesting allies must be political and hold on to some ideological leanings, my response always is this is not absolutely necessary. Engineering and IT students who have disabled friends in universities should be able to invent and innovate AT to help their mates without necessarily have a political viewpoint or leaning towards an ideology. Human feeling and desire to invent is sometimes enough to make a difference. This is not negating the use of the social model of disability or the human right approach but not having a strong association with a political movement should not stop an innovator from developing technology that can transform the lives of many Disabled people.
The AT 2030 programme will with time and consistent application be able to change the environments for good for most Disabled people in countries of the Global South, especially in rural settings. Embedded in the strategies are plans to address the social stigma that Disabled people still experience. The programme will empower communities and give them training opportunities that could eventually lead to employment and even entrepreneurship.
So when I think about the environment that shaped me when growing up I think about the interventions Disabled people, their organisations and allies can bring into environments that are still destroying or stifling talents and aspirations of millions of Disabled people. Governments have responsibilities too and they must be held accountable to their commitments under various international treaties they have signed up to including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Environments can shape people, environments can be shaped too and with assistive technology and social care policies and legislations environments in countries of the South can be shaped to optimise Disabled people’s potentials and opportunities to succeed.
Iyiola is an advisory member of the GDI Hub and works part-time in a local disability charity in Camden.