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BW Businessworld

The Disabled Are Fine - It’s The Environment That Needs Work

When we think about it like that, the focus shifts. Now it’s not about a person who needs to be cured or “fixed” but an environment that makes that person’s functioning and full participation difficult if not impossible.

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In 2001, the World Health Organization introduced the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health - a totally new way to understand disability. The ICF is a game changer. It says that disability isn’t a problem that a particular individual has to deal with but a condition imposed by the environment.  

If this seems hard to understand, imagine a world that was designed exclusively for deaf people. People who could hear would no longer be able to communicate easily, follow instructions or avoid dangers. We would suddenly know what it means to be disabled – not because there was something “wrong” with us but because we were living in the wrong environment. 

When we think about it like that, the focus shifts. Now it’s not about a person who needs to be cured or “fixed” but an environment that makes that person’s functioning and full participation difficult if not impossible. 

It is also not about people needing pity, sympathy, or charity. Once disability is correctly seen as a function of a poorly designed environment, the “bechara” approach falls apart. We don’t feel sorry for a doctor who is given a carpenter’s toolkit and told to do brain surgery. We feel outraged. Our question isn’t why the doctor can’t operate but “Which fool is in charge of supplies?”  

The skills and talents of 15% of the world’s population are being wasted by our inability to see what they have to contribute. We’ve done this before. For centuries women, to name just one previously marginalized group, were prevented from achieving their potential by unexamined ideas about what they could and couldn’t do. Blacks, Gays, Jews and Muslims have all been dealt with similarly at different times in history. It’s nothing new.  

Good business sense abhors any waste of resources. There is nothing to be gained from squandering talent and human capital and there is much to be lost. The Business Disability Forum, a British research organization, has found that while accommodation support costs an average of $250 per worker, rehiring because that worker has a disability costs five times as much.  

Similarly, countries seeking the most cost-effective ways to boost their economies should invest in early childhood development. James Heckman, the Nobel Prize winning economist puts it simply: “The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families. Efforts should focus on the first years for the greatest efficiency and effectiveness.” 

If it seems a stretch that we can strengthen the economy and reduce the national debt by investing in children, Professor Heckman has evidence. His visionary research with an array of economists, psychologists, statisticians and neuroscientists makes a convincing case that early childhood development directly influences economic, health and social parameters both for individuals and society. Adverse early events, including childhood disability, create deficits in skills and abilities that reduce the child’s capacity to learn. As adults, these children have lower productivity and are more likely to need public support—thereby adding to financial deficits borne by taxpayers. 

By changing the environment in which children grow and learn, we make their lives better, more rewarding and more meaningful. And by adapting the environment to suit the needs of disabled people in general, we do the same. There is literally no downside to this.  

COVID gave the whole world a taste of what it is like to be disabled. Overnight, our lives changed for the worse, exactly as if we had been in a catastrophic accident. We no longer had the freedom to move out of our homes at will, communication was difficult and stilted, other people became objects of fear and contagion. Children could not go to school and many of us lost our jobs. Despair and hopelessness were common.  

But within a very short time, we developed new systems for everything. Once we realized that the world we had built for ourselves was now actually disabling us, we simply changed our world. Zoom meetings, online schooling, contactless deliveries, work-from-home, flexible hours . . . many of the things disabled people had been told for years were utterly impossible now – amazingly! – became not only possible but preferable.  

Doctors saw 90% of their patients online. Therapists ran virtual counseling sessions. Religious services, exercise classes, book clubs, choirs, theatre – everything happened online. And ultimately, against all odds and every rational expectation, vaccines were created, approved in record time and rolled out around the world with military precision and unprecedented public support.  

We were fine. We weren’t disabled. There was nothing wrong with us. The problem was entirely with the environment we were living in. Given our present reality, it was disabling us. It needed to change. And, just like that, we changed it.   

We didn’t need awareness campaigns or slogans or workshops. We didn’t wait for incentives or quotas or government directives. We just figured out what needed to be done and we did it. 

We can do it again. 15 per cent of the world’s population is waiting. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Jo Chopra McGowan

Jo Chopra McGowan is an American who has lived in India for the past 40 years. She is co-founder and Executive Director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a Dehradun non-profit working with disabled children and adults. (www.latikaroy.org)

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