good practice

Disability and development

Maimouna with her daughter

Gail Johnston from Action on Disability and Development (ADD) in Frome, Somerset, UK, describes how women disabled by attitudes in developing countries are fighting back and raising awareness of disabled parenting.

Disabled women and girls face double discrimination – being disabled and being female. They are particularly vulnerable to abuse. A small UN survey in Orissa, India, in 2004 found that 25% of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6% of disabled women had been forcibly sterilised (United Nations 2006).

Many families discourage their sons from marrying a disabled woman. A lack of awareness means they believe that a disabled woman either will not be able to have children or that any child born will inherit her disability. If a disabled woman becomes pregnant, she is likely to be abandoned – facing the added stigma of being an unmarried mother. 

When it comes to childbirth, disabled women – married or single – experience discrimination, negative attitudes and poor treatment by most hospital staff who think that disabled people should not have children. 

Facilities in hospitals are inaccessible and high birthing tables mean many disabled women are forced to give birth on the floor.

Awareness raising

Maïmouna lives in West Africa and is a counsellor within ABBEH, a disabled people’s organisation supported by UK-based international development charity ADD. 

Her role as a counsellor is to raise awareness among disabled women on how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections and HIV infection. 

She says “When I got pregnant, my mother made a big fuss, saying that I would not be able to take care of my own child. At first she sulked, but then supported me. She is now very attached to my daughter. I am able to make a living and take care of my child with my dressmaking activities and my position as a counsellor.”

Florence in her shop (Photograph: Geoff Sayer)In Uganda, 47-year-old Florence supports her husband and three children by running a small shop at the side of the road. Florence has been active in the disability movement since 1991 when she first joined her local disabled people’s organisation. 

Having experienced at first hand the treatment of disabled women during pregnancy and childbirth, Florence has been working to raise awareness among hospital staff of the need for, and the right of, disabled women to be treated with the same respect and dignity afforded to non-disabled women. 

“When I went for an antenatal check-up I was asked, ‘Why did you get pregnant?’  It is our right to have a baby. We don’t want to hear those questions.

“After my own experiences, I brought together a group of girls and women – blind, deaf and physically disabled – and went to the hospital with a girl who was pregnant to see the medical superintendent. 

“We told him that as disabled women we face many problems, including the negative attitudes of midwives, and beds in the labour ward being too high. Many of us cannot climb up; they should have had a bed that could be raised and lowered.

“But it’s not easy to change how staff in the labour ward think of disabled women, so now we go regularly to train them. I know that attitudes are changing because a disabled woman recently said that they never told her to climb on the bed for her check-up. They set a mattress down on the floor so she could lie down to be examined.

“When we carry out training in the hospital I always explain that we never asked for our disability. It can happen to anyone. I think they now respect us.”

In cultures where marriage is a highly valued status, disabled people are claiming their right to marry and have children – to show the community that they can be independent, equal members of society.

Action on Disability and Development

Working in 12 of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, ADD supports organisations of disabled people to campaign for equal rights. 

In developing countries, disabled people, especially disabled women and children, are among the poorest, most disadvantaged and socially excluded, and are often forgotten by other organisations.

ADD also works to influence other development organisations to include disabled people in their work. 

For more information about ADD’s work, please contact:

Gail Johnston

Action on Disability and Development

Tel: 01373 473064


DPPI Journal
62: Summer 2008