Economic Opportunities and Disability in Countries of Varying Levels of Development

I am lucky. I know that one day I will be able to live independently and have a job. I know that I probably will not need to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I know that if I have a family, I will be able to provide for them. I know that I will most likely be able to maintain a decent standard of living throughout my life.

The technology in developed countries means that my visual impairment will not restrict my employment or educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities in developing countries do not have the access to the necessary technology, the health care, or the education that they would require to be able to support themselves. In 2011, 15% of the world’s population was recorded as living with a disability. 80% of those are in less developed countries.

Poverty and Disability in Developing Countries

Conveniently, the World Bank has a study on this.

Essentially, they took data from the World Health Survey and looked at the economic status of people with disabilities in fifteen LDCs (less developed countries, for non-geographers) compared to people without disabilities.

The fifteen countries, by geographic region, are:

  • Sub-Saharan African: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Zambia, and Zimbabwe
  • Asia: Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Pakistan, and the Philippines
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Paraguay

Bangladesh had the highest disability prevalence overall, with 16% of the population considered as having a disability by the survey. Lao PDR had the lowest prevalence, 3%. In every country, females made up a larger percentage of those with disabilities, but the largest disparity was in Bangladesh. In most countries, rural populations had a higher percentage of individuals with disabilities (the exceptions were Pakistan, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico).

The study notes that the pattern with genders mimics the patterns seen in developed countries, albeit with much larger disparities. The exceptions for the rural vs. urban pattern were possibly just anomalies, the World Bank says, because not enough studies have been done to analyze the pattern. Cities are known for having a lot of pollution and poor living conditions for the poorest people, and those conditions might cause disability, and and it also might be the only place a severely impoverished person (perhaps due to a disability) can afford to live. Originally, I assumed that the outliers may be because urban populations were simply higher for the anomaly countries (or they had very large cities), but the numbers didn’t match. However, larger cities might be a possible correlation. Mexico, the Philippines, and Pakistan each have a city in the top twenty cities ranked by population. However, I must concur with the study’s statement that more data will be needed to make a solid link.

The next set of tables I felt qualified to analyze (well, everything but the p-values) were the ones measuring poverty status of people with disabilities in LDCs. When the poverty line was declared at $1.25 USD, every country had more people with disabilities below the poverty line than above it (except for the chronic trend destroyer, Pakistan). When it was declared at $2 USD, every country but Pakistan and Mexico had a majority of people with disabilities below it. When it was multidimensional, every country (even Pakistan) had a majority of people with disabilities below it, displaying that, in general, people with disabilities were less well off universally.

These results were expected. Without access to technology or education that would allow them to work, or work better paying jobs, people with disabilities in LDCs would be more likely to be impoverished.

Also, people in every country with disabilities received fewer years of schooling than their able-bodied counterparts. The same pattern emerged with the percentages of students who completed primary school (although Mauritius had 67% of its students with disability complete primary school, it also had the highest percentage of able-bodied students completing primary school). Every country but Ghana and Zambia had a higher percentage of able-bodied workers compared to disabled workers (Zambia broke even, with 60% of both populations working).

This makes sense too. Physical disabilities would make it more difficult to attend school, while other disabilities would make it very difficult to make the experience worthwhile, and chronic illnesses might force some students to drop out. Brazil had the largest difference in school completion rates, and Burkina Faso had the smallest. Malawi had the highest disparity in public school completion. This supports my hypothesis that with their education so limited, people with disabilities would be forced to work hard labor and the lowest wage jobs.

Households with disabilities also spent more on health care than the average household. Only in Zambia did the numbers match (again), implying households with people with disabilities spent about the same as households without anyone with a disability. Again, this checks out as something I predicted. Some conditions require medications or medical procedures to treat and manage, and those cost money. Obtaining those in an LDC would be a major decision because every cent counts when you’re living on a few dollars a day. The need for medical care may also drive a family further into poverty because they need to spend money that they do not really have. This can put future generations into poverty because using the money for medical procedures means children might have to work instead of going to school (or they cannot afford to go).

As you can see, people with disabilities are more frequently living in poverty in LDCs because their disabilities add to challenges already faced by people in developing countries. Lower education rates are exacerbated for people with disabilities because going to school (and not having the technology or assistance to help them) is very difficult. The lack of even a basic education and their own personal limits severely restricts the types of jobs they can perform. Their employment may be further limited by stigma about the disabled that may be present in a culture. It also does not help that women are more frequently disabled in countries with high gender inequality because disabled women would have to face the double stigma of being a woman and being disabled. They would also be more difficult to marry off in cultures with arranged marriages*.

*I don’t support that, but I’m just saying this because arranged marriages are still occuring today.

Economics and Disability in Developed Countries

It’s surprisingly difficult to find recent data about this.

Hey, the second after I typed that, I scrolled down a few more results on my fifth Google search and found this article from CNN about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

Employment for people with disabilities has actually decreased since 1990 and the inception of the ADA (which is kind of scary, if you think about what the ADA was meant to do). In fact, it went from 50% to 41% in 10 years.

The article attributes this to an ageing population, since older people are more likely to be disabled (so, is it a good thing for development if a country’s disabled population is higher?). But some of it is still due to the lack of access. We don’t have wheelchair ramps on many buildings that should have them. Or, the ‘accessible’ option is simply dehumanizing, or perhaps another form of disability erasure (message here: people with disabilities deserve to have access with integrity). We have the technology, money, and infrastructure to do it. I believe we should. Part of the problem is that people just don’t know how to react to someone with a disability in our culture. It is almost taboo to ask someone with a disability what is wrong with them, and instead, we move to “help” instead (I once had someone ask me about the cones and rods in my eyes. This person knew about what my impairment was ahead of time, and should have understood it dealt with muscles and my brain. Or they were just bad at biology. But I digress). Note that this help is often unsolicited and unwanted. Socially, people with disabilities are often treated like fragile objects, and inclusion is often not inclusion (like when I supervise a lab because I can’t use the measuring equipment. I get the results and write the report, but I’m not part of the interactive activity, only an observer, or what happens in this article). Perhaps this stems from our history of institutionalizing people with disabilities. Either way, as better access levels the playing field, our culture is sometimes unsure how to respond. Anyway, the article even mentions how a blind person can fill out an online application for a job, but is stopped with the paper part because it is not in a format he can read and the website does not list HR details. Again, a lack of access prevents people in developed countries from becoming employed in many different capacities. The same access issues also apply to education. Some of my books are optimized for a screen reader and have no pictures. This gets really annoying when all the information for one assignment is only written inside the pictures.

Disabled people, on average, also earn about $10,000 USD less than non-disabled people. This gap was closer to $6,000 in 1990.

Again, the question is, what changed? It is illegal to discriminate based on disability, but obviously, that happens. Both disabled and non-disabled people can get service jobs, but there is a difference in what job they get. Disabled people are more likely to be janitors. Able-bodied people are more likely to be teachers (now go read the hyperlink above, if you haven’t already). Again, this segregation is mostly due to lack of understanding and access. Technology and social media have given people with disabilities more opportunities to share their stories, and by listening to them, people with disabilities can be better understood as people. One positive change in employment the CNN article mentions is a focus on diversity. I agree that is good. But diversity should not be included in a company simply to meet a quota, and the people you are adding to have diversity should be spread across every level of employment, not just the one stereotypes believe they should fit into.


Economic opportunities are especially limited for people with disabilities in LDCs, and are more limited in MDCs (more developed countries). In LDCs, it is purely due to a lack of resources and access. In MDCs, this is mostly a result of a lack of understanding of disabilities and willingness to provide access.

I want to be a video editor, but I understand I’m not likely to be taken seriously if anyone sees me filling out the job application with a CCTV or using the magnifier on the computer to read through the menus in the software.

I want to win an Eddie. I’m that kind of ambitious. But I won’t be able to do that unless people understand that my visual impairment does not make me any less competent with the art or the technology. We’re getting there. The ADA was one step. But it will take a lot more work to help people get a picture of disability that says we can, not that we can’t.

Maybe I’ll write another post later about solutions to these problems, but seeing as I’ve spent close to three hours on this already….

See ya!


***Note: I will be using person first language and attribute first language. I understand that this may upset people, as it is the US journalism standard to use only person first language. However, I have read many arguments that claim person-first language is not desirable. Honestly, no matter what I do, this topic is so hot button, someone’s gonna flip.

***I also gotta admit that I was unable to comprehend some of the data in the study because I am not an economist nor a statistician and I have not taken economics or stats.