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July 26, 2004

Unleashing Hidden Talents

From: World Bank Group, DC - Jul 26, 2004

Inclusive policies toward disabled people can produce big development gains

July 26 2004 — Imagine being excluded from school or being unable to work simply because you need glasses.

Or being unable to walk down the street because you are too short or too old to traverse high gutters designed to stop people parking on the sidewalk.

These are just two of the dilemmas that are being confronted as part of a Bank-wide push to foster more inclusive policies toward people with disabilities in developing countries.

Judy Heumann, the advisor on disability and development in the Human Development Network at the World Bank, says part of the challenge of dealing with disability as an issue in development is to demystify it.

A Bank-wide Push

Heumann's team is overseeing a push to take account of disability in every one of the Bank's six regions and across all of its networks. Action plans are currently being prepared by working groups in all regions using a grant from World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn's contingency fund.

"Our work is to integrate issues relating to disability into the Bank's work," Heumann says. This involves incorporating the needs of disabled people into existing Bank projects as well as projects that are currently in the planning stage.

"The aim is to make sure the needs of disabled people are addressed across the board – in education, housing, transport, the environment, across all the sectors," she says. She says her team is working to make sure that both the Bank, and governments the Bank works with, take the needs of disabled people into account when they are planning their programs.

Heumann says she hopes that over the next five or 10 years, the Bank will take a leadership role in integrating the issue into the development agenda.

"We aim to help the Bank and governments understand that there are simple, cheap solutions – some of which don't cost anything. Allowing a child with a physical disability into a classroom, doesn't cost anything…many physically disabled kids need very little help at all."

The disability and development team is also focusing on working in partnership with other international development agencies and disabled people's organizations to increase their capacity to lobby on behalf of their constituents.

A Lost Generation

Heumann came to the Bank two years ago charged with the task of increasing awareness across the institution of the need to take people with disabilities into account when designing policies and programs.

It is a task senior Bank official recognize as crucial to meeting key development targets.

Jean-Louis Sarbib, Senior Vice-President and Head of Network for the Bank's Human Development Network, says disabilities had previously been something of a "blind spot" for the Bank.

"Unless we really pay attention to people with disabilities, it is unlikely that we will meet some of the Millennium Development Goals (international development targets to be reached by 2015).

"Take the case of education. Education for All means education for all children, including those who have disabilities. And yet how many of our schools are built with the access for children who have physical disabilities? How many of our teachers are trained to deal with children who have learning disabilities."

Disabled people have been something of a lost generation in many developing countries. Many children with disabilities – such as being confined to a wheelchair or deafness – are denied an education.

In some societies, disabled people suffer from stigmatization and are hidden by their families who fear they will be tarnished by association.

So, one of the first tasks of the disability and development team has been to work on finding out the numbers of disabled people in developing countries.

Estimates to date put the number at around 10 percent of the population – about 400 million people across the whole developing world. But given that countries like the United States and Australia have reported disability rates closer to 20 percent, Heumann suspects that the 10 percent figure is too low.

Low-Hanging Fruit

She says, in many countries, taking disability into account can be like a "low hanging fruit" in terms of making development gains.

Heumann says collecting data on disability is extremely important in terms of making gains on the disability front.

"In Brazil, when they inserted one or two questions on disability into household surveys, they found a high percentage of children that were considered legally blind actually just needed glasses," Heumann says.

"So there are children and adults who are unable to work or have limited ability to work or to learn but who could be quickly helped by giving them glasses or a hearing aid."

She says in India and Vietnam some of the curbs on the streets are inaccessible to disabled people – and even short and old people – because they are too high. Some are now being lowered at the urging of local disability advocates.

Simple Things Can Make a Big Difference

Heumann says in many cases simple interventions can make a big difference to the lives of people with disabilities, their families and the overall performance of the country.

For example during major renovation or restoration efforts in the wake of natural disasters or conflicts, it adds only about 2 percent to the project cost to make buildings accessible to people with disabilities.

Part of the process of making a difference comes in recognizing the true nature of disability, which in most cases need not impede people from leading fulfilling and productive lives.

"Disability is not just people who are blind or deaf or in wheelchairs," Heumann says. "Many of the people are in a gray area with mild to moderate mental health disorders, mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, mild to moderate physical disabilities.

"People with mild to moderate disabilities need very little to be mainstreamed into society."

She says one of the biggest problems faced by people with disabilities is stigma. "Families will hide their children or others in the family who have a disability for fear that the stigma on the whole family will be very significant."

© 2004 The World Bank Group, All Rights Reserved.