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Study details the struggle of the specially-abled in seeking livelihood opportunities

How hard is it shop for a few groceries? The majority of us may find this to be a trivial task. But, close to one billion people all over the world may find this an arduous one. Why? Because, unlike most of us, they live with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments. It is estimated that around 80% of them live in low and middle-income countries like India, which has 21 million. Due to inadequate infrastructure, they are often excluded from the mainstream, and their life and livelihood is a battle against odds every single day. So, how difficult is this battle?

In a new study, researchers from the United Kingdom, India and Cameroon have analysed the differences in livelihood opportunities for those who are specially-abled, and the rest in India and Cameroon. They have conducted the study in Mahbubnagar district of Telangana in India and Fundong district of north-west Cameroon, and the results of the study are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

In India, the researchers surveyed 441 adults with different forms of disability. More than half of these adults had a physical impairment or conditions like epilepsy, followed by those with loss of vision and hearing, intellectual limitations and clinical depression. A third of them had multiple disabilities. The researchers then compared these individuals with 288 individuals without disabilities.

The results found that just about 48% of those with disabilities were employed as against 82% of persons without disabilities. They were also less likely to have worked in the past year. About 42% of those who found a job, worked only for a part of the year, as opposed to only 27% non-disabled workers. However, no difference was found in the type of work undertaken between the two groups. The data showed that about 50% of the seasonal workers in both groups worked on farms owned or rented by their household. However, about 75% of the people from both groups worked in self-owned farms in Cameroon.

When individuals of the same age group, sex, marital status and education level were compared form the two groups, the study found that people with disabilities were five times less likely to work than those without any impairment. The researchers observed similar results in Cameroon too. The study also found that a disabled individual is more likely to be working if they were younger, married, and either did not have a physical impairment or suffered from depression.

The link between marital status and employment, as the study found, could be due to positive psychological effects and support that may come from living with a partner, as opposed to being single, widowed or divorced. On the other hand, it could also be that the likelihood of marriage increases with employment. In general, disabled persons were less likely to be married than those without disabilities, which could be a result of social stigma. Surprisingly, education levels amongst people with and without disabilities did not play a determining factor for employment. Close to 51% of the cases in India reported late onset of disability (after schooling).

The status of disabled women is the most terrible of all, finds the study. In India, women with disabilities were twice as likely not to be working as men. However, such a difference did not exist in Cameroon. Hence, women with disabilities in India face ‘double discrimination’, one of being a woman and the other of being disabled, note the authors.

So, why is it so hard for people with disability to work? The authors of the study point out a few reasons like ageing, fragile health and disability conditions. However, about 47% of the surveyed disabled people worked unpaid, including doing household chores.

Earlier studies have found that disability and poverty are inextricably linked. While poverty may increase the risk of impairment due to poor living conditions and subpar healthcare, disability may prevent a person from earning a decent living and continuing to live in poverty. The findings of the current study seem to support this as it found that persons with disabilities were slightly more likely to be from the most deprived socio-economic conditions.

The study found that in India, persons with disability were three times more likely to benefit from government pension and support than persons without disability. Although the authors of the research paper find this form of support encouraging and essential for alleviating poverty, they assert that measures like affordable and greater access to healthcare, rehabilitation, education and vocational training can help reduce poverty. Also, establishing anti-discriminatory laws and improving accessibility to workers plays a significant role in making life better for the disabled, say the authors.

The study is a big step in highlighting some of the factors that bring about inequality in the society between the disabled minority and the non-disabled majority. Studies like this in a developing country like India can contribute to creating effective programmes and policies for the betterment of persons with disability.