It’s a great idea for a movie. A political drama. George Clooney or Matt Damon as male lead, and there’s a young, feisty, female journalist who gets caught up in it all. The opening scene spans a meeting room high up in skyscraper land, with a marble round table, iced water jugs and leaders of a big global development Bank.
“Gentlemen, you should be proud,” says the silver fox, “This policy forges the path to education for the poorest of the poor.”
Clapping and shaking hands all around.
Cut to the brilliant green and brown of a remote village high up in Indonesia’s mountains. Children, gorgeous and laughing, walk kilometers of terrain to a tiny, one-teacher school. The camera pans back to the village, where a little girl stares wistfully after them. The shot widens to show that she has clubfoot; her feet twisted inwards. As opening credits scroll on, we know there is no way she could walk to school…
I haven’t worked out the complete script yet, but there are plenty of true stories to draw from. One billion people in the world have disabilities, and around 80% of them live in developing countries like Indonesia. In fact, in the world’s poorest places over one in five people have disabilities. These people live with much more than just physical or mental impairments. As my “little Indonesian girl” character would portray, people with disabilities experience huge barriers in participating in education, employment and community life.
Barriers exist for people with disabilities in all societies, but are steepest in poorer communities where access to these activities is often limited anyway. A child born with clubfoot in Australia will generally get treatment at birth to straighten and strengthen her legs, and still go to school, socialise and work with her peers. The little Indonesian girl, however, presents the reality in many developing countries.
In these places, children born with clubfoot will never receive treatment for this. Walking, if possible, will always be painful, and she could never travel far. In many communities her impairment would also be seen as a curse. She would likely face a lifetime of stigma and exclusion from her community, who assume that because she has a disability, she has no potential.
If there was a movie, this little girl’s story would show us how poverty and disability create a vicious cycle: being poor generally limits access to health care, good nutrition and safe conditions – which increases the likelihood of acquiring a disability. And having a disability generally limits access to education, employment and community – which increases the likelihood of being trapped in poverty.
Clearly this movie is a drama. It’s a dramatic fact that children with disabilities make up one-third of all children in developing countries who should be in school but are not. What isn’t so clear is how this dire situation can be developed into a Hollywood ending.
Cue for us to cut to the silver fox in the skyscraper.
Some of the big players in development are coming to recognise that people with disabilities are extremely vulnerable and excluded from their projects. How this recognition gets the little girl with clubfoot to school is more complicated. RESULTS International (Australia) recently released a report examining how the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and AusAID include girls and children with disabilities in education programs they fund in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Philippines. The report finds that while all three agencies consider disability in their high-level development policies, “on the ground” many children with disabilities are still not getting to school. Some progress has been made—particularly by AusAID–but children with disabilities continue to be profoundly excluded from education. And so the scene is set for the tale of the silver fox and the little village girl.
To be honest, I don’t think I’d like the movie. It would have a twee love plot and some expendable character I fancied would die. Then there would be the inevitable contrast between the skyscraper and village, reinforcing unhelpful paradigms of “us” and “them”, “benefactor” and “beneficiary”, “problem” and “solution”.
But I would still probably go to see it. Because when millions of the world’s children are facing such extreme discrimination and exclusion, you need to take what you can to get the message out there.
Which is why I’m asking you to think about this: Would you have gone to see the film? Would you get teary at the injustice that the little girl endures? Would you spend the trip home ranting about the laudable development banks writing toothless policies from their air-conditioned skyscrapers? Would you Google some combination of “disability poverty Indonesia education” when procrastinating at work the next day?
Or, even if you think the movie sounds like the worst thing since the Titanic, are you horrified by the fact that 70% of children with disabilities in Indonesia do not go to school?
If so, don’t let this storyline just be an overlooked opportunity for Matt Damon to get an Oscar. Movie or not, there are still millions of children in the world being denied their rights because they have a disability. So get teary, rant, Google, find out more about ending the cycle of poverty and disability.
Their stories may not make it to the big screen, but these children still deserve the chance to write their own happy ending.
This article first appeared in the Angry Cripple column of The Punch.
To find out more about the cycle of poverty and disability and what you can do about this, visit End the Cycle.