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Why International Development Students Need to Take Disability Studies

August 3, 2017

By Adeline Joshua

Young woman smiles at camera

Adeline Joshua

When I was 10 years old, my mom and I spent one month in the Philippines to visit relatives. I remember this trip fondly because it was my first time out of the country, and my first time visiting a place so vastly different from the bustling streets of my hometown of New York City.

It was a tropical paradise filled with friendly people and delicious food, yet even at a young age, it was hard to ignore the financial and social inequality that existed around me. For people with disabilities (PWDs), living in the Philippines meant living with cultural stigmas and structural barriers that prevented many from reaching their full potential. The most memorable moments of my trip included interactions with other children with disabilities who were marginalized from society and unable to attend school.

I had the privilege of growing up with a physical disability in the United States after the Americans with Disabilities Act () was passed: I grew up with the concept of education and self-determination as a right ingrained in me. It was a humbling and profound experience to learn that everyone did not share access to the rights I took for granted, and this experience was what sparked my interest in studying international development.

The aim of international development is to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Approximately 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability, and 80% of people with disabilities live in developing countries. Yet despite the statistics, very few universities offer classes that address disability and development. Based on conversations I have had with professors and peers, disability seems to be perceived as a specialization for “disability experts” to focus on. A lack of disability experts in academia meant that I had to piece together my disability education by absorbing what I could from independent study and brief discussions on disability in lectures.

It was not until this USICD internship program that I had the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of disability and development. In the past 8 weeks, I attended presentations on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and on disability and the Strategic Development Goals (SDGs). I participated in discussions debating the merits of disability-inclusive education vs. special education through my assignment at the World Bank, and acquired valuable insight into the needs of my fellow interns who represent a wide spectrum of disabilities.

Through this in-depth knowledge, it has become increasingly clear to me that disability studies should not be confined to people interested in disability as an area of focus. Anyone with a passion for helping others, alleviating poverty, or ending hunger needs to learn about how these issues affect PWDs. Disability is not a specialized topic, it is crosscutting: it affects every race, every nationality, every sexual orientation, and every issue in international development. Academia needs to move past viewing disability as being separate from other topics. It denies students—eager to make a difference in the world—the opportunity to gain a holistic understanding of the challenges people face. By undertaking this shift, I believe that development practice will follow suit, and perhaps one day, there will be many more PWDs able to partake in the same privileges that have allowed me to thrive.

Adeline Joshua is a member of the 2017 cohort of the USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program and other topics, to be posted at this blog during the summer.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  The internship program was enabled by funding support from the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF). Adeline Joshua is completing her internship at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) at the World Bank.  Read the biographies of our interns in the summer 2017 program.  Or read blog posts by other current and past interns. The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD, MEAF, or IFC or World Bank.

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