Disabling Poverty:  Overcoming humanity’s most pervasive limitation, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Feb

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People presume my disability has to do with being an amputee, but that’s not the case; our insecurities are our disabilities, and I struggle with those as does everyone.  Aimee Mullins

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see. — Mark Twain

At the UN this week, the Commission for Social Development has been in session, a Commission that takes up issues and policies related to poverty, disability, ageing and youth, seeking to link these concerns in ways that will motivate greater levels of policy coherence and funding commitments by state and non-state entities.

We’ve always tried to be present in the room for this annual Commission as much as we can, in part because of the constituencies it routinely identifies – youth, persons with disabilities, the aged – but also because of its sensitivity to the ways in which poverty acts as a complicating factor in efforts to help these and other  constituents (as noted in a recent UN report) “fulfill their potential in life, and lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives in a healthy environment.”

As we have written about often, “dignified and rewarding lives” constitutes the essential precondition for peaceful and inclusive societies.  Where the elderly are preyed upon rather than protected, where youth are patronized rather than respected, where persons with disabilities – the apparent and the hidden – are left to fend for themselves on our often-dismal social and economic margins, prospects for conflict within societies surely rise.  For too many people in this world, despite our recent, demonstrable poverty-reduction successes, overcoming the effects of poverty is like trying to claw their way out of a deep swamp with plastic scissors.  Many times, there is no enabling environment anywhere to be found; only insecure spaces filled with hidden pitfalls that persons are mostly incapable of surmounting by themselves.

Of all the poverty-related connections raised during the Commission, the one most “personal” for me is the connection with disabilities. I have no disability myself – only miscalculations and mistakes that I commit, over and over, and about which my circle of friends and loved ones, and the larger world surrounding my life, are much too forgiving.  But I have also seen first-hand how genuine poverty and equally-genuine disabilities reinforce each other. As is the case with many of the other 1 billion people on this planet estimated to be living with disabilities of all kinds, I have seen my former Harlem church family members struggle to overcome the effects of sometimes-severe, physical and psychological limitations.  I have seen some of them toil mightily just to get by, to maintain connections of kindness and avoid discrimination, to find employers willing to take a chance on them or advocates willing to help them pursue more fair and sensitive social policies. I have seen them struggle to find physical or mental health services that could make at least some of the disabilities we widely recognize – and those we don’t quite know what to do with yet – less likely.

It can simply be overwhelming for persons with disabilities who also face the additional burdens of poverty, or for their caregivers (if they exist) trying to make ends meet while overcoming the effects of discrimination of their disabled loved ones.  For some facing severe economic constraints, it takes every ounce of energy, every fiber of resourcefulness, just to keep the sometimes-traumatic and always-insecure impacts and implications of disabilities on a remotely even keel.

In listening this past week to the often hopeful discussions within the Commission, some of us wondered what it would mean to explore the option of seeing poverty not only as a complication to disability but as a potential disability in its own right.  What if we put the same creative energy into finding that metaphorical “prosthesis” for poverty that we have been more and more successful at creating when physical limbs are lost and psychological disorders and addictions proliferate?  What if we could convince states and others to treat poverty more as a “condition” that needs to be addressed – with tools and laws and changes in social perspectives at the ready – and less as a moral failing or stigma to be overcome – or simply ignored altogether?

Given that poverty as we know it is embedded within a host of social and political conditions that breed deprivation and discrimination and impede just and robust societal responses, it will surely be more difficult to address than other “disabilities” – though as the Commission rightly notes, certainly no less essential.  However, this pattern of deprivation, discrimination and inadequate response is common to the more recognizable disabilities community as well.  Indeed, in some parts of the world, we have taken mere “baby steps” towards ending discriminations against persons with disabilities, even as our persistent social inequalities and heavily-armed militias create new legions of disabled, of traumatized, of the fearful and insecure.  Poverty might represent a higher bar for our collective response, but its disabling effects are also far more pervasive.   It is not the first goal of the UN’s 2030 development agenda for no reason.

As I was preparing to write this, I consulted hundreds of photos and “posters” on the internet that focus on one or more aspects of disability.  Many approvingly showed people being kind or courageous, or they depicted welcome examples of how societies are adjusting to differing abilities, challenging both complacency and our dependence on one-size-fits-all approaches to education, health, mobility and other core human tasks.  The solitary image I found in my search that seemed to in any way couple poverty and disability is the one found at the heading of this post.

For that man, as for too many others, the crutches we see from afar could merely hint at the full complement of his potential limitations, including limitations endemic to poverty itself.   While it is unwise to make too many inferences from one photo, we can hopefully come to see that of all the physical impediments and psychological disorders that impede our human progress, it is the pervasiveness of poverty that disables us most.

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