Disabled people are estimated to make up approximately 10% of any population (WHO) and a higher proportion of those living in chronic poverty. There has recently been a call for more information relating to disability and chronic poverty. This is due to the realisation that disabled people are disproportionately amongst the poorest of the poor in all parts of the world, and that international development targets are unlikely to be met without including disabled people. In the poorest countries of the world, particularly where there is no benefit system, being amongst the very poorest has more severe implications of life or death than in richer countries. The basic cause of this poverty is exclusion: exclusion from social, economic and political life. The industrialised north is not exempt from this exclusion. In the UK, in 1998-1999 only one-third of disabled adults of working age were in employment (Labour Force Survey - winter 1998-1999).
In 1996, the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agreed seven international development targets. These include the aim to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, together with targets towards achieving gender equality, reducing infant and maternal mortality rates and achieving universal primary education. It is unlikely that any of these targets can be met without considering the needs of disabled people. Indeed achieving universal primary education would be impossible without including disabled people. However, whilst there has recently been a shift by some NGOs, donors, and governments towards considering the issues of disability rights in their rhetoric, disabled people in many parts of the world, have seen little change in terms of concrete action.
Whilst the international development targets with their strong focus on poverty reduction would seem a positive approach, there are several dangers of the current strategy. The targets could result in focussing on those it is easiest to bring out of poverty, not those in chronic poverty, among whom disabled people are disproportionately represented. A strategy based on economic growth and trade will not be widely beneficial to disabled people who, through discriminatory processes, are largely excluded from the labour market altogether. If current strategies are continued, then in the unlikely event that any of the targets are met, disabled people would become even more disproportionately represented amongst those living in chronic poverty. There is then a further danger that the remaining level poverty would become accepted as an inevitable fact of life.
Disabled people are so severely excluded from all areas of society that there is not even comparable or reliable data on incidence, distribution and trends of disability, let alone the extent of disabled people's poverty. What little research does exist has been done overwhelmingly by European or North American non-disabled academics. There has been little opportunity for influence of the agenda by any disabled people, let alone those living in chronic poverty themselves.
Despite this lack of comparable data there is plenty of anecdotal and more substantiated evidence to show that disabled people are generally amongst the poorest of the poor. It is already known that: living in poverty increases the likelihood of getting an impairment; disabled people generally experience higher rates of poverty as a result of being disabled; and that when people living in poverty become disabled they are often more severely marginalised than are wealthier people.
Clare Short writes of the value of good statistics as a basis for creating the will to reduce world poverty: 'Much work is needed to improve the collection of reliable and comparative data and to strengthen local statistical capacity' (DFID, 2000b). However it is important that the focus of research is on practical benefits for reducing the chronic poverty faced by disabled people, not just on gathering data to prove something that is already well known. Depending on how it is carried out, the process of gathering statistics may help to motivate people, to assess progress and even to challenge the very exclusion that causes chronic poverty.
Chronic Poverty and Disability, CPRC Working Paper No. 4, Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC), Manchester, UK, ISBN 1-904049-03-6, 34 pp.