Understanding disability


Footsteps 108 - Living with disability

Footsteps 108 is full of practical advice on how to make our churches and communities more inclusive of people living with disabilities.

Kazol is now a leader in her community. Photo: Artwise/CDD/CBM
Kazol is now a leader in her community. Photo: Artwise/CDD/CBM

Understanding disability

Kazol Rekha lives in a small village in a flood-prone area in Bangladesh. When she was young her parents died, one shortly after the other. Her brothers looked after her and arranged her marriage.

But then, more tragedy. She fell off a chair and damaged her spinal cord leaving her unable to walk. Her husband left her and remarried, and her family changed their attitude towards her. 

Kazol says, ‘Previously I was treated with affection by everyone in my family, but that all changed after the accident. I was neglected and I became a burden. It was difficult and painful. I suffered a lot.’ 

Everybody expected her to stay a burden, an extra mouth to feed, and nobody thought she could contribute in any way to her family and community. 

The vicious cycle

One in every seven people has some kind of disability. And most – 80 per cent – live in low- and middle- income countries. 

This is because disability and poverty are closely linked in what is often called a ‘vicious cycle’. This means that people living in poverty are more likely to become disabled, and people with disabilities are more likely to be poor. 

Disability as a consequence of poverty 

Inadequate shelter, unhygienic living conditions, malnutrition, lack of sanitation and unsafe drinking water – combined with poor access to health care – are all leading causes of disability. So communities that have high levels of poverty are also likely to have high rates of disability. 

Disability as a cause of poverty 

Many children and adults with disabilities have limited opportunities to go to school, work for a living, enjoy family life and participate as equals in society. Often this is not because of their impairment, but because of the stigma and discrimination they face. In many cases their voices are not heard and their needs are overlooked. They may also face additional costs such as specialised health care and equipment, further increasing the risk of poverty for them and their families.

Understanding disability - The vicious cycle diagram

What if things could change? 

Life changed again for Kazol when a local organisation started to work in her village. She was given a wheelchair which meant she was no longer totally dependent on others. 

She says, ‘Before the wheelchair at least two people had to carry me to the toilet and the well. It was a big thing for me when the wheelchair came and a ramp was put in to make them accessible.’ 

Kazol also received training in how to grow vegetables and rear chickens, and she was able to save some money. With that she bought a sewing machine. She now lives in her own house and earns money by working as a tailor. 

Leading role 

The life of a person with disabilities can completely change when some of the barriers they are facing are removed. In Kazol’s case, she now has mobility, a safe and hygienic living environment and is able to earn money. This has led to changes in attitudes in her community, where Kazol now plays a leading role. 

She says, ‘I am president of the Ward Disaster Committee. We have early warning and evacuation systems in place and we make sure that no one is left behind. 

‘I was always afraid when there was the chance of flooding, but I am not afraid anymore. I feel proud of my role in the community: people did not know what to do and now I am there to help them learn. I feel good!’


Almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life, and many who reach old age will experience increasing difficulties in functioning. But not everyone will experience disability. 

One approach (the one we are taking in this publication) is to consider disability as being mainly caused by barriers in society, not by the specific impairment that an individual might have. Rather than focusing on what a person cannot do, this approach focuses on how the environment around the person can be changed to allow them to live their life on an equal basis with others.  

For example, Kazol was disabled by the fact that she could not move around freely or live independently. She was also disabled by the negative attitudes of the people around her. Once she had a wheelchair and an adapted home, she was no longer restricted by her impairment (limited movement in her legs) and her level of disability was reduced. Community attitudes towards her changed and she regained independence, choice and control over her life. 

Good friends enjoying each other’s company in Ethiopia. Photo: Light for the World
Good friends enjoying each other’s company in Ethiopia. Photo: Light for the World

People with disabilities are affected by four main types of barriers. 

1. Physical barriers: for example, when people with limited mobility cannot access a building because there is no ramp. 

2. Barriers caused by people’s attitudes: for example, when people assume that children with disabilities cannot go to school or join in with community activities. 

3. Communication barriers: when people with different needs are unable to access the same information as everyone else because they cannot see, hear or understand it. 

4. Institutional barriers: when the needs of people with different impairments are not taken into account by organisations, governments, law enforcers and others. 

Recognising and removing these barriers can greatly improve the lives of people with disabilities, opening up opportunities for education, meaningful work and participation in social, religious and political life. The vicious cycle described above is challenged and broken, and the emotional and material poverty experienced by people living with disabilities is reduced.  

Visit www.endthecycle.info/stories/kazol-rekha to watch Kazol tell her story. The video is available in English, Spanish and French. 


Klaas Aikes and Ambrose Murangira
Klaas Aikes and Ambrose Murangira, who is Deaf, work as Disability Inclusion Advisers at Light for the World Netherlands and Uganda respectively. Email: k.aikes@light-for-the-world.org or a.murangira@light-for-the-world.org