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Enabling women: interventions for disabled women in the developing world » Women's Courage

Enabling women: interventions for disabled women in the developing world

February 28th, 2013 by mraddawi Leave a reply »

I wanted to focus this piece on highlighting intervention efforts that have been made in developing countries for people with disabilities. My last post focused on the concept of disability as a “social construct”—if you are not at a disadvantage to a peer in society, are you disabled? Throughout my case study-like posts, what I have really come to realize is the importance of health services in preventing “disability” entirely.  Disability is a state I think comes from your environment. If your environment provides you with the services you need to live well, you shouldn’t feel disabled. It is our job to provide the services a disabled person needs to be a fully-abled member of society. Ability is something we can provide women and children with the proper devices and services.

One such intervention that comes to mind is very basic—providing wheelchairs to   women with disabilities. An NGO called “The Free Wheelchair Mission” was started by Don Schoendorfer after he saw a disabled woman crawling across a dirt road during a visit to rural Morocco—obviously a traumatic vision that haunted him forever. Schoendorfer uses a very unique and cheap approach to providing wheelchairs. Schoendorfer’s approach was to create as many cheap and secure wheelchairs as possible for distribution. The solution he came up with was unique; these wheelchairs are literally plastic patio chairs secured onto steel frames with added bicycle wheels and mountain bike tires. The Mission’s average cost to manufacture, ship and distribute a wheelchair to countries like China, Morocco, Ghana, India, Peru, Uganda and Zambia is around $41.00. From 1999 to 2003, the Mission sent over 23,000 free wheelchairs to 33 developing countries without widespread disability services.

Interventions by NGOs like these are crucial because of the long standing miseducation and stigma that exists against disabled people in many developing countries (this was something I touched on in my last post). Even in countries like Bangladesh, where policymakers have, on paper, demonstrated an interest in providing devices and services to women and children with disabilities, in practice, these impoverished countries do not have the funding to actually give disabled people the services and devices they need. For example, the National Constitution of Bangladesh actually has numerous provisions that obligates the government “to protect the rights and dignity of all citizens of the country equally and without bias whatsoever.” And, additionally, the government developed a National Action Plan in 2006 involving forty-six ministries and divisions of government to undertake specific activities for persons with disabilities, from implementing widespread rehabilitation services to providing specialized education to children with disability.

However, the Bangladeshi government still needs help from abroad to cover the costs of caring for its disabled population. Why? Because it keeps growing and the funding these ministries can provide for services is not enough. Gains in health care by the government are made alongside an increase in surviving children with disabilities, an increased number of people incurring disabilities due to old age, and continual widespread malnutrition. The prevalence of people with disabilities is likely to continue to rise in Bangladesh over time, and the international community will need to help Bangladesh provide sustainable support for disabled women and children

USAID supports one such sustainable intitiative called “Reach Out & Care, Inc” (ROC). ROC currently supports rehabilitation services for disabled children in Iraq and Morroco, but aims to increase its support to countries like Bangladesh. What is key about ROC is its sustainability—it provides training based on WHO guidelines to regional centers provding mobility devices, services and education to women and children with physical and/or mental disabilities. This helps governments like Bangladesh because while certain legislation can cover the costs of basic devices, like wheelchairs, it cannot also cover the costs of proper training for workers in rehabilitation and education centers, which is a crucial component in empowering and enabling women and children with disabilities. ROC also brings in Western developments to these care facilities in Iraq and Morocco, collaborating with the public and private sectors and medical device designers to improve existing device designs and develop more inexpensive mobility devices for people in developing countries. ROC trains not only rehabilitation and education providers, but manufacturers. When ROC leaves a regional facility, that facility will have people with the capability to manufacture and assemble up to 100 secure and modernized wheelchairs per month.  ROC aims to spread the use of high quality devices, physical and medical therapy, ongoing care, and prescription of mobility devices to the developing world-an all encompassing and sustainable approach to intervention in developing countries. These are the types of interventions that are needed all around the world, and these interventions are so rewarding because what they do is enable women and children, quite literally. What an empowering thought—we can use intervention to empower and literally enable a woman in the world.  I hope that USAID and other NGOs continue to invest in these types of powerful interventions.




  1. kori says:

    This is so amazing! I am really interested in how technology can impact the body. This reminds me of the Stanford JaipurKnee Project that created an artificial knee for $20. It is really inspiring how people can be so innovate to bring cost-effective help to disabled patients who can not afford traditional medical care. I agree with you that USAID and NGOs should continue to support in these types of initiatives because they help bring new freedoms and opportunities to the people they affect.

  2. Sam says:

    I have said this after reading other blogs, I love seeing inventions people come up with that help combat any issue. This is obviously one of those cases, Don Schoendorfer came up with a really cheap way to provide wheelchairs to people who need them and can’t afford them. Really cool!

  3. sophia says:

    I was immediately attracted to this blog after seeing the picture of such a creative wheelchair. I love examples of human innovation with few resources, and I think it’s great that these wheelchairs can be made at a much lower cost and therefore help many more people than normal wheelchairs would. I think the interventions you highlighted are fantastic and I love the sustainable approach. I think that there are other important interventions to consider such as ensuring that the community environment is wheelchair-friendly.

  4. Kira says:

    Mary, I learned so much from this post. You should consider taking Femst 260 (Seminar in Women’s Health: Women and Disabilities) next quarter. I liked that you focused on the need for the intervention (via the poignant image of a woman crawling across a road), the proliferation of disability devices, and the sustainability of the projects in terms of training for workers in rehabilitation and education centers. It’s really valuable to see innovative, inexpensive wheelchairs being made and then to see how the organizations will continue to have far-reaching effects. Training women to be educators and rehabilitators not only keeps these organizations and efforts sustainable, but also affords women a means to make money. This, as we’ve learned, empowers them and affects them in every other aspect of life.

  5. louiselu says:

    Mary–thanks for your post! The interventions by the Free Wheelchair Mission and ROC are so inspiring. I can only imagine how life-changing it is for these women to receive wheelchairs and feel empowered with a new sense of mobility and support. I really like the sustainable approach that ROC has implemented, especially the manufacturing component that allows the communities to continue to produce and distribute low-cost wheelchairs themselves.

  6. Meghan says:

    Your proposition of disability as a social construct is fascinating. I love the idea that as long as your community or society provides you with adequate resources, you should never feel disabled. While this may be a bit of a lofty goal, I think it is a crucial one. Providing wheelchairs to women in need is such a simple intervention, but one that can unequivocally transform the lives of disabled women. The world can literally open up to them in ways that would be impossible before, and providing such accessibility can definitely assist in decreasing the stigma surrounding disability.

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