The exact number of people with disabilities in the world is not known but a study by the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO) finds that approximately 15% of the world’s population comprises people with disabilities (Brown, 2011). This percentage increases in nations and communities, sometimes precipitously, due to a variety of factors, including inefficient or lack of assessment procedures, wars and political insurrections, natural disasters, motor vehicular, industrial, farming, and other accidents, environmental hazards, birth defects, as well as malnutrition, limited or lack of proper medical services and other corollaries of a nation’s low level of socio-economic development (Adera & Asimeng-Goahene, 2011; Malakpa, 2009).
Africa exemplifies the correlation between socio-economic development and the prevalence of disabling conditions. For instance, estimates for the number of people with disabilities in the continent range from twenty to forty percent of the population, including ten to fifteen percent of school-age children (Grol, 2000). At this writing, the population of Africa is approximately 1,300,976,080, about 16.64% of the world’s population. Given that truism, and taking the forty percent estimate, it is reasonable to state that there are more than 400 million people with disabilities in Africa although other estimates limit the number to 80 million. Whether this number is put at eighty or more than four hundred million, it is indubitable that these are mind-boggling figures. Worse still, there is consensus that the number continues to grow daily (Ibid).
The United Nations has taken various measures to address the plight of people with disabilities (PWDs). Beyond reiterating the rights of all peoples as espoused in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other steps, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the
World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons at its 37th regular session in 1982. The program was intended not only to prevent disabilities but also to promote the equality, social inclusion and “full participation” of persons with disabilities in all aspects of personal, social, cultural, and socio-economic development. “The Program further emphasized that these concepts should apply with the same scope and urgency to all countries, regardless of their level of development” (Chitereka, 2017, p.1). Following this program, the General Assembly declared the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992) (Ibid).
Among the United Nations’ conventions and declarations for people with disabilities, by far, the most comprehensive is The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was adopted on December 13, 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. It is considered “the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century and is the first human rights convention to be open for signature by regional integration organizations.” The convention requires states that ratify it to enact laws and other measures to improve the rights of people with disabilities (PWDs) and abolish legislation, customs and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities.” Signing the convention obligates the signing party not to violate the object and purpose of the convention but that does not bind such a party to upholding the specific obligations of the CRPD. Parties are only so bound when they ratify the convention.
The Convention begins with a 25-point preamble which, among others, recalls, “the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations which recognize the inherent dignity and worth and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” It acknowledges previous UN human rights declarations and covenants. It emphasizes the indivisible human rights, independence, full societal participation, and unchecked inclusion of persons with disabilities in policy making (especially policies that affect them).
Beyond the preamble, the convention outlines 50 articles. Articles 1-32 point out the key issues of concern; these range from the purpose of the Convention to equal rights and opportunities as well as education, health, and equal justice. These articles also cover employment alongside full and non-discriminatory social, cultural, and political participation. Articles 33-50 focus on logistical issues--the establishment of a monitoring committee, the role of the committee, ratification and subsequent obligation, reporting procedures, denunciation, and amendments
Like the United Nations, African countries have taken steps toward addressing the plight of people with disabilities on the continent. Beyond accepting the tenants of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every country in Africa has a law or policy in one form or another emphasizing human rights. Furthermore, in response to the huge number of people with disabilities (PWDs) in Africa, many, if not most, countries on the continent have laws and regulations which underscore the rights of PWDs. In addition, in 1999, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), launched the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities (ADPD). This initiative was intended “to raise awareness about disability issues in the region and to identify solutions tailored to the African experience that enhance full participation, equality, and empowerment of Africans with disability” (Sik). Instead of allowing this initiative to end in 2009, it was extended until 2019 by African Union ministers who met in Windhoek, Namibia, in October 2008 (ibid).
In addition to ADPD, almost every African country has signed or ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, UNCRPD. Furthermore, leaders of the continent have met on this issue. This was in February 2014 when the first African Leaders Forum on Disability was held in Malawi. At the forum, the host president, Her Excellency, Joyce Banda and other leaders trumpeted the rights of PWDs on the continent and “challenged the stigmas and inequalities associated with disability. Ultimately, the goal was to achieve awareness to spark equality and empowerment for people with disabilities in Africa” (Ibid). Former President Joyce Banda of Malawi led in this regard by example as she proved to be a champion for the rights of people with disabilities. In her first few weeks in office, she “passed a landmark Disability Act, enshrining into law equal rights and inclusion policies for people with disabilities in Malawi and also ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2013”.
Apart from the Malawi Forum, countries in Africa are signatories to various regional and international conventions which recognize and insist on the rights, equality, and inclusion of PWDs on the continent and throughout the world. As stated supra, the most comprehensive of these conventions is The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The call for full inclusion and equal participation of PWDs in Africa includes the voices of academics, religious and civil organizations, institutions as well as local and international nongovernmental organizations, NGOs. This clamor includes the bold and vociferous voices of people with disabilities either as individuals or organizations. Despite this concerted effort and in spite of national, regional, and international laws and convention emphasizing the inalienable human rights of people with disabilities, PWDs in Africa continue to be stigmatized, excluded, treated contemptuously, abused, and denied basic human and other rights. Chitereka (2017) cites sources showing that PWDs have been treated like outcasts for over 100 years and that only out of sympathy and pity have they received attention, if at all. Malakpa (2009) argues that they have been pushed into deplorable conditions where, as social welfare cases, they are neglected and forced to remain in isolation where their interests must wait until all other sectors of the society and economy are comfortably in place—an unachievable feat. Disability Africa points out that people with disabilities in Africa are being left behind. “They are isolated, deprived of healthcare and education;” they are at risk of abuse. Similarly, Disabled World News maintains that, “The vast majority of Africans with disabilities are excluded from schools and opportunities to work, virtually guaranteeing that they will live out their lives as the poorest of the poor. School enrollment for the disabled is estimated at no more than 5-10 percent, [but as low as 1-3% in some areas]. For many, begging becomes a sole means of survival.
The preceding delineation of the plight of people with disabilities in Africa is presented deliberately in broad terms but there is a plethora of specific country examples. The situation is particularly horrible for girls and women who, in many places, are doubly stigmatized, isolated, or marginalized on the basis of gender and disability. Likewise, rural dwellers with disabilities are doubly marginalized. Furthermore, as reported by Human Rights Watch, the plight of people with disabilities is particularly horrific in areas of wars and insurrections. On a global basis, the first joint report on disability by the World Health Organization and the World Bank suggests that “more than a billion people in the world today experience disability.” The report adds further that, “People with disabilities have generally poorer health, lower education achievements, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. This is largely due to the lack of services available to them and the many obstacles they face in their everyday lives”. In light of this report, both the World Health Organization and the World Bank “are urging governments of nations around the world to increase their efforts to enable access to mainstream services, as well as to invest in specialized programs in order to unlock the incredible potentials of People with Disabilities” (ibid). It is regrettable however that “the number of countries with adequate mechanisms in place to respond to the needs of People With Disabilities are few in number (Sik) (Ibid). Thus, the joint report of the WHO and the World Bank “provides the best available evidence about what works to overcome barriers to health care, rehabilitation, education, employment, and support services, and to create the environments which will enable people with disabilities to flourish” (Ibid).
Doubtless, various African countries are striving strenuously to provide for, and include people with disabilities. A number of countries, including South Africa, have strict disability laws as well as university departments, even entire colleges focusing on disability studies. In general, however, it behooves Africa to follow and even exceed the recommendations advanced by the WHO and World Bank. This is because the equality, inclusion, and full societal participation of people with disabilities are matters of human rights, not issues of social welfare or humanitarianism. Failure to do so is to ignore and violate local, regional, and international laws and conventions already recognized by African countries. Besides, there is ample evidence showing the personal, community, and national socio-economic benefits of educating, training, and employing people with disabilities. It is therefore important—indeed actively impelling—that these people be educated, trained and reintegrated into society as employed taxpayers. Otherwise, not only will their human rights be denied but in addition, they will be forced to depend on the employed few thereby exacerbating poverty and its corollaries.
In advocating for the inclusion of PWDs at all levels in Africa, it is realized that the continent has some of the poorest nations in the world. However, this truism need not be an excuse for neglecting people with disabilities. Where there is political will, adjustments, adaptations, modifications, and improvisations can be made to meet the human, social, cultural, educational, and employment needs of people with disabilities in Africa. Stated differently, providing for people with disabilities in Africa, as anywhere else, is a governance issue.
In line with the notion of proper governance in Africa, the African Exponent published a Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s ranking of worst governments in Africa. Along those lines, it is recommended herein that the Foundation consider rating African countries in terms of the manner and extent to which they emphasize the rights and equality of people with disabilities and include same in all aspects of social, political, academic, and employment endeavors. While inevitably countries will fall to the bottom of this rating, the purpose of the rating ought not be to name and shame countries; instead, the thrust ought to be toward to name and fame nations who are striving seriously and sincerely to underscore the equality and rights of people with disabilities in Africa and ensure that such people are included at all levels.
In conclusion, in general, it is easy for government officials and others in society to ignore or sweep under the rug, issues regarding people with disabilities. This is unfortunate because such people know not their future. As has been said often, “An able-bodied person is one who is not disabled YET.” Likewise, decades ago, Dajani, a Jordanian writer laid out the criteria for a nation’s civilization or level of development. He wrote:
The criterion for civilization in any nation is its (the nation's) standard of social services. We know of communities where the old and the weaklings are either put to death or left to die in isolation because the community cannot afford to keep them. Social consciousness in a community is reached when individuals or groups feel responsibility toward the old, the weak and the handicapped. Social consciousness goes beyond a feeling of responsibility. It drives those individuals and groups to institute ways and means of relieving the handicapped and helping them to live happily and contentedly in an environment in which an individual could utilize, to the utmost, his natural abilities in the belief, that self help is the best help (Sik) (Dajani, 1952, p. 1).
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Dajani, S.T. (1952). The blind in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. International Journal for the Education of the Blind, 1(4), 104-105.
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The article author can be reached at [email protected].