Mutanga, Oliver (2017). 'Disability and Inequalities: Where are we heading?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


It is now 16 years since the first HDCA Conference in Cambridge in 2001. As we gather for the first time in Africa, it is crucial to reflect on the success and challenges regarding addressing unequal social arrangements for people with disabilities.

The capability approach has been used to explore disability-related issues. Within the capability perspective, in brief, disability occurs when an individual with impairment is deprived of opportunities and freedoms to do what he or she ‘values to do’ (Mitra, 2006). It results from this definition that disability is the outcome of unequal social arrangements. Sen has been concerned with equality of opportunities that he refers to repeatedly in his writings on the capability approach. For example, he writes: ‘We must take note that a disabled person may not be able to do many things that an able-bodied individual can, with the same bundle of commodities’ (Sen, 1985:7). Mobility equipment or other resources and help required by people with disabilities may soak up a large proportion of income that would otherwise be adequate (Sen, 2009). He further outlines two disadvantages from which people with disabilities might suffer. Firstly, people with disabilities have a conversion handicap i.e. the difficulties in converting their resources or incomes into ‘good living’ because of disability (Sen, 2009:258). Secondly, people with disabilities might suffer an earning handicap as they might need more income to achieve similar functionings as others (for example, having to buy a wheelchair in order to be mobile).

Furthermore, one can argue that people with disabilities face inequities – injustice and unfairness- as a result of social arrangements. Studies often report that disability is both a cause and consequence of unjust social arrangements. On one hand, failure to access social services can lead to disability because of adverse effects on access to health care and proper nutrition. Unjust social arrangements result in unsafe living conditions, poverty and marginalization. On the other hand, disability can lead to inequalities e.g. because of exclusion from participating in education and employment. If everything can be explained by this simple correlation between disability and inequalities, why do we still have inequalities in society? The answer is that the relationship between disability and inequalities is complex, and must be unpacked properly to be well understood. In an effort to understand this relationship, papers in this panel session will explore disability related matters. Three papers will look at disability from a global perspective. The first by Mónica Pinilla-Roncancio and Sabina Alkire, How Poor are People with Disabilities around the Globe? addresses challenges associated with measuring poverty among people with disabilities and their families by suggesting a multidimensional perspective. In the second paper, Erika Bockstael, Syam Prasad and Nancy Hansen, using evidence from their project with people with disabilities in Paraty, Brazil, argue for an alternative data collection method, photovoice–when researching with people with disabilities. In her paper, Sophie Mitra presents the human development model of disability, health and wellbeing. This model highlights the roles of resources, conversion functions, agency, and it uses capabilities and/or functionings as metric for wellbeing.


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