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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

The Political Economy of Disability and Development, with Special Reference to India



The condition of being disabled is at the bottom of the development agenda, unrecognized as a problem for development and absent from the United Nations human development reports. It also goes untheorized: many of the incapabilities that follow from impairment cannot be reduced without a corresponding reduction in the capabilities of non-disabled people. Along with neglect in policy and theory goes a deep factual neglect. The data about the conditions of disability are of low quality, patchy, often seriously out of date and sometimes the result of special interest or pleading.

The author of this paper seeks to review the relationships between disability and development. India is taken for illustrative purposes, because of the relative abundance of material, and the exemplary nature of the social and economic institutions in which disabled people are embedded and of the political neglect with which they are treated. It would seem that there are more seriously disabled people in India than there are seriously malnourished ones.

As a form of deprivation, disability is intractably complex. It is a probabilistic condition, understood in locally specific ways, associated with economic losses directly to the disabled person, indirectly to their household and to future generations. It is both caused by and causes poverty and inequality. It is also a development paradox, increasing in frequency with increases in life expectancy. Its recognition and impact depend on gender, social class and caste, age and location.

Institutions producing and reproducing disability are also analysed in the paper, including the household and locality; missionary and religious organizations; other non-governmental organizations; markets for equipment, treatment and labour; and the state. The author then examines the way a technocratic policy discourse has evolved in India, as well as how it has been translated into legal provision and implemented through organizations created by the state and supplied with human and financial resources. She claims that there is no coherent agenda, no recognizable state obligation or means whereby needs can be translated into practical claims. Resources are on a declining trend, and the state fails to regulate the market or private sector and NGOs.

Policy options in an era of structural adjustment and reforms to social sector expenditure are also reviewed, including Community Based Rehabilitation, social movements of collective action, and the cases for developmental state action. The kind of agenda for disability which would be consistent with the recognition of an imperfect obligation is mapped out.

The paper concludes by arguing that the same types of progressive international and national forces that have worked to create gender and the environment as influential developmental issues are needed for disability. But because the constraints on disabled people as activists are far greater and more debilitating than those curbing the opportunities of women, the support of non-dominating professionals and of international aid agencies is even more necessary.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Mar 1996
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD