Ruth Knagg, Public Fundraising Manager for Action on Disability and Development, on 15 May 2003

Action on Disability and Development is a non-governmental organization operating in 12 countries in Africa and Asia in order to promote self-help by groups of disabled people in pursuit of their economic, social and political rights.

After graduating from Liverpool University the speaker worked first for the Consumers Association, then for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in Zimbabwe (teaching maths in a primitive rural school), then again in Britain for the NSPCC before taking up her post with ADD in Frome. Over the last 8 years she has increased the publicly-provided income of ADD from £52,000 to £448,000.

Beginning with the fundamentals of the needs to be addressed, Ms Knagg referred to two charts prepared for the Chronic Poverty Institute in Manchester, which describe two cycles, from disability to chronic poverty back to further impairment resulting from social and governmental discriminations and exclusions.(see Figs 1&2) She discussed various aspects of both causes and results of such exclusions together with the general lack of support overseas for the disabled. One illustrative statistic is that 90% of infant disability worldwide arises from social causes – i.e. poverty and disease.

A distinction should be drawn between ‘medical’ and ‘social’ models. The disabled tend to be categorized by their impairment – what is wrong with them, their medical condition and their possibility of cure. Thus, health care professionals are primarily concerned with aids and appliances for those sometimes called ‘abnormal’. While impairments often restrict what may be medically achieved, there are assumptions about what the impaired may otherwise achieve. For example, as a teenager the speaker encountered a legless American (who also only had vestigial arms) at an international scout camp, where he was the subject of much pity, who apparently fell into a swimming pool, to the consternation of fully-clothed bystanders who then dived in to save him. They found him highly amused by their concern, since he was a champion swimmer more able than the rescuers. Since then, experience has shown the speaker how limited is the ‘medical’ view.

Similarly, ‘soft discrimination’ by communities, neighbours and even families in the Third World causes the disabled to doubt their own abilities. "Prejudices are far more disabling than the actual impairments" claimed the speaker. "The idea of development is that people feel their own power to meet their own needs, since charity perpetuates the status quo." Aid is welcome, but the development must come from the disabled themselves. ADD asks them to identify their own problems and suggest solutions, so that with the help of ADD they may help themselves.

The background to the movement was then sketched. In 1975 the United Nations produced a declaration of the ‘rights’ of the disabled. Little happened until 1981, when an International Year of Disabled People was announced. Some 300 disabled people, out of 2000 delegates to a Rehabilitation International Congress in Canada of mainly social workers, formed a splinter congress, which eventually became the Disabled People International. That in turn led to a British Council of Disabled People. As with other movements, opinions and activities differ between member groups. Some are militants ready to chain themselves to the Houses of Parliament, others abhor such activity; some find medical aids, pain relief, etc. vital, while others do not need them. This movement, like that concerned with racial discrimination, embraces a wide range of views, but it now accepts the ‘social’ rather than the ‘medical’ model. The speaker believes that over the next decade disability will generally be seen as a ‘rights’ issue around the world.

ADD itself originated from the work of a horticulturist who worked for the VSO in Zambia. After returning to Britain he founded a charity for horticultural therapy and skills training for the disabled (now called ‘Thrive’) in Frome. That was linked to an Indian project which became inspired to a social rather than medical approach by Disabled People International, together with a Zimbabwe group. When Joel Joffe (now Lord Joffe), a former defence lawyer for Nelson Mandela who had become a manager with Allied Dunbar (now Zurich Life), arranged a funding of £100,000 per annum for 5 years, ADD was founded. That core funding allowed an office in Frome to be set up and some international activities to be undertaken immediately in 1985, based upon self-help activities already begun independently in Zimbabwe. More countries became involved, but developments differed. In Cambodia, for example, warfare had caused fear of group activities and mistrust of Westerners. Thus, although self-help organization by the disabled had to be initiated by British workers from a Cambodian base, the British were confined there for years while disabled nationals went to villages to develop self-help groups.

Differing forms of activities have emerged from the various countries involved and there is no single model is followed. The variety of methods adopted for meeting identified needs were illustrated through slides. In Bangalore, in India, a horticultural business makes good profits through equipping offices with plants and then maintaining them, while its trainees obtain jobs in agricultural institutions and nurseries. A school for disabled children has attained such prestige that parents of non-disabled children seek entry. ADD lobbies for disabled children to be included in ordinary schools, where classmates usually readily accept them. Also in India, rather than seeking relatively expensive Western medical aids, disabled groups trained by ADD use cheap local materials to make simple but effective aids for other disabled people, through their own organization called ‘Mobility India’. ADD also arranges for women to train as technicians so that disabled women will accept them also as fitters. Through an ADD initiative a deaf and blind tailor has built a business and achieved fame, while a blind woman successfully offers computing services.

In Uganda, a disabled boy given calipers and crutches was seen as a local curiosity, which caused him to abandon them, until an ADD-inspired loan scheme in 1987 enabled him to begin a cobbling business, which led within a year to repayment of the loan and the employment of two other disabled helpers. Resulting local respect encouraged him to re-adopt the aids. ADD approached a local chief to provide some poor land for a group of women, who then produced enough for themselves and surpluses for sale, so that the chief required payment for the land, which ADD provided. Although disabled groups were male-dominated initially, groups of disabled women now operate independently – one in Kampala, for example, selling craft products and tailoring services to tourists. Various skills are developed through ADD-sponsored training workshops – carpentry and umbrella-making were illustrated. Another illustration was of a leper (traditionally ousted by society) with no legs and but one thumb, who was just able to grasp a pen with that, who achieved a position as secretary to a disabled group needing to liaise with the local council because he had attained literacy through learning from his schoolboy brothers. After becoming an ADD worker he later became one of five disabled Ugandan MPs.

Examples of successes in Cambodia included hairdressing, television servicing and even roadside sales of pancakes, by often severely-disabled people. Like lepers, albinos in Tanzania are ostracized (even murdered sometimes), but ADD has slowly managed to secure employment (e.g. as nightwatchmen) for some. In Sudan ADD helps disabled people to manufacture hand-powered tricycles and to weave seats, using local materials. A short video showed ADD-supported activities in Bangladesh since 1995, which resulted in justice being secured for an assaulted blind woman, development of nationwide seminars and schools for the disabled and the attainment of disability rights and welfare laws through self-help campaigns. The speaker summarized her account overall by declaring that "from fear, shame, then pity, the disabled are now being helped to help themselves, thus attaining fruitful employment, personal dignity and public acceptance".

Questioned on funding, the speaker replied that everyday running expenses and the monitoring of progress are partially covered by her work, which includes securing regular donations from the public, small local meetings, etc. Specific projects overseas, however, are covered by various sources, mainly through partnership with the Government, Comic Relief, the Princess of Wales Trust, the National Lottery, Oxfam and some European non-governmental organizations (who are being lobbied by ADD to recognize that special training is not needed to aid the disabled in the ways outlined). ADD has an international Board of Trustees. Since virtually all of its development work is overseas, it is not well known in Britain, even locally. It aims to phase itself out from overseas schemes when sufficient local activity is assured.

Other questions concerned differences of response and treatment between those born disabled and those who became disabled during life, differences between urban and rural situations, attitudes to the impact of warfare, etc. When asked about work with the mentally impaired, the speaker conceded that the physically disabled sometimes shared prejudices and progress is difficult – in India, some epileptics are still held in chains– but some work is being undertaken in Uganda. Overall, it is difficult to assess the extent to which needs are being addressed, since statistics are unreliable, particularly where wars add to the numbers naturally disabled. ADD intends to consolidate its current activities rather than extend to other countries and it has a flexible policy on projects – if supplied funds are used otherwise than agreed initially between donor and recipients, the latter will still be supported – it is their prerogative.

Geoffrey Catchpole


(Action on Disability and Development, Vallis House, 57 Vallis Road, Frome, Somerset. BA11 3EG. Tel. 01373 473064. E-mail: [email protected]. )


Recommended book: DISABILITY, LIBERATION AND DEVELOPMENT by Peter Coleridge – Oxfam Publications. 1993. ISBN 0 85598 194 6 hardback; ISBN 0 85598 195 4 paperback.