Disability Talk: Disability Models

I was invited to Berlin at the 15th International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development  to deliver a session during rotating discussions on Disability Sensitization and UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Following is an extract from the Conference Magazine.

When Tanzila Khan, a trainer and CEO of Creative Alley from Pakistan, asked delegates what the CRPD was, most didn’t know much. So Khan started with basics. She explained that the CRPD is like a treaty, where there is unanimous agreement that people with disabilities are supposed to be recognized in the processes, policies and initiatives of the United Nations and its Member States.

It has been in existence for about a decade and is helping to challenge the gender bias that clouds access to rights, especially for women with disabilities, Khan told delegates. “Women with disabilities are sidelined in terms of education, in terms of any opportunity to have a normal life, because they aren’t seen fit to produce healthy sons.” She was speaking of the South Asian context, but delegates from other parts of the world nodded in agreement.

Inclusion is generally the first step to addressing social exclusion, which strips people with disabilities of their rights. “People with disabilities can be remarkable contributors in terms of progress,” Khan said. “But this doesn’t happen because stakeholders – that is where you come in – do not incorporate us into your world. I am saying this bluntly, because in many organisations I have been the first person with a disability to participate. This is always a shock for me, because there are at least a billion of us in the world.”

Khan then presented what she sees as the four basic approaches of civil society to disability. The Charity Model, in which a lot of funding is available for a one-time investment like buying one wheelchair. The Medical Model aims to fix a person with prosthetics or surgeries to allow them to ‘fit in’. The Social or Behaviour Model, which looks to alter the environment, making it more inclusive for persons with disabilities.

The final model was the focus of a great deal of discussion in this session. The Opportunity Model views the person with a disability as an opportunity. “For example, this wheelchair is manufactured and I am a consumer. I am a market,” said Khan. “But no one is making good wheelchairs. Anybody, anywhere, could need a wheelchair in their lives, but wheelchairs are not available.”

She offered that the Opportunity Model can trigger entrepreneurs to design services and products that people like her can use in order to have better lives. Delegates debated the value of this approach, citing some problems with the model, but largely agreeing that investment in social care can stimulate the economy.

Alison Marshall, the Director of Sense International, added that through the concept of universal design, many products and services for persons with disabilities can be useful for everyone. If a community has a pavement with a high curb, a ramp is good for the businessperson with a suitcase, the parent pushing a pram, an elderly person with a stick, and the toddler learning to walk. Everybody benefits from a ramp, including a person who may be a wheelchair user. “If we can pick that principle when we think about access to SRHR services, the idea is designing it for somebody with different access needs benefits everybody,” Marshall explained.

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