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Poverty and Access–Breaking the Cycle

July 6, 2011

When I was growing up and was fortunate enough to benefit from my family’s economic privilege, I assumed that poverty simply meant a lack of money. As I came to learn more about life in developing countries and poverty, I gradually absorbed the message that poverty is much more complex than this.  No one understands poverty better than people who have lived it themselves—thus, I cannot pretend to be an “expert” on poverty.  But I will share here a few modest lessons I have learned along the way.

Poverty frequently means lack of access—not just to money but to education, jobs, healthcare services, and opportunities that people could use to lift themselves from poverty.  Poverty can also mean lack of access to knowledge that could help people
access all the rest.  When you don’t have money, you can’t buy the accessibility you need.  When you don’t have access to the tools,
opportunities, time, or knowledge you need to escape poverty, then you can’t obtain the money you need.  And around it
goes.  Disability can complicate this cycle.  Even if you weren’t poor to begin with, you may still tumble into poverty because people with disabilities face more accessibility barriers to the things you need to avoid poverty.  Being poor as well as disabled makes it
harder to access knowledge that could be useful for advocating for a more accessible environment for people with disabilities.  And around it goes again.

There was no single moment of epiphany for when I arrived at this understanding of the complex relationship between accessibility and poverty.  But I can think of many moments that helped me understand the kinds of knowledge that people with disabilities
in developing countries may need, and why it can be challenging for them to access it.

… In 1998, reading through the old correspondence files of what was then called the Global Center on Education at Gallaudet, I came across letters from two different people in the same African country claiming to run the “only” school for deaf children in that country, each with a different name.  Each seemed to be unaware of the other’s effort to sustain a similar school facing similar  challenges in their own country.

… Not many years after, I found myself in email correspondence with a Deaf man from a different African country.  He said that he finds it easier to communicate regularly with people hundreds of miles away in Europe and the US than he does to communicate with people who live 25 miles away.  He had access to email at work, but most people he knows in his country have no internet access, the postal system also was problematic, and transportation challenging. Even some hearing people don’t have phones, and equipment to enable Deaf people to access those phones is even harder to come by.  These barriers made it more difficult for him to access knowledge about conditions in his own country.

… In the early and mid 2000s, I started meeting more people with disabilities and their families from developing countries around the world, both in person and particularly via email. I rapidly lost count of the number of people who asked how they could find
disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) in other countries that share goals common to their own, or ask how they can find translations of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in more languages, or how they can find copies of disability-related legislation in other countries so they can review them in considering the kind of legislation their own country should adopt, and other types of information.  In short, I discovered that one of the most common threads among members of the
international disability community seems to be the search for disability rights knowledge.

Over the years I also have come to discover that disability rights knowledge not only does exist but exists in abundance even when
restricted to digital sources.  The difficulty in accessing knowledge is not in creating it—or at least, not always, and not for all topics or languages of interest to disability rights advocates.  The difficulty is that a lot of the existing knowledge is scattered across thousands of websites around the world.  Frequently, you have to already know what websites to visit before you can find the best resources for your desired topic.  And not everyone is lucky enough to find a mentor to guide them to the right web addresses.  These barriers are challenging enough for neophytes to the international disability rights field even when they have internet
access.  People in developing countries whose ability to use the internet is often far more restricted are simply excluded from digital knowledge altogether.

Difficulty accessing disability rights knowledge is not the only factor that makes it harder for people with disabilities in developing
countries to protect their own human rights or escape poverty.  But it is one of them.  Advocates need knowledge to enable them to
more effectively leverage what other limited resources they have to improve the lives of people with disabilities.  And this awareness is one of a great many things that motivates me in my work coordinating the day to day activities of the Global Disability Rights Library (GDRL) project at USICD.  The GDRL project has given us a way to begin consolidating a portion of existing digital
disability rights knowledge in one place so it can be delivered to locations in developing countries with limited internet access.  You can see what we have found so far at the new on-line version of the GDRL at   If you haven’t already helped recommend or contribute digital content for the project, or helped identify potential deployment sites, I hope you will visit the GDRL website to learn more about how you can become involved.

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