Breaking barriers and reconstructing a disability-inclusive society

This page in:
A blind woman poses in front of the camera with a girl A blind woman poses in front of the camera with a girl

About 85 million persons with disabilities live in Latin America and the Caribbean today. They comprise a highly heterogeneous population but share a common history of invisibility and exclusion . And what is daunting about this exclusion, so ingrained in our institutions and our daily life, is that it has largely become invisible.

This is the main message behind the new regional report “Disability-Inclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Path to Sustainable Development,” where we make a call for action to governments, lawmakers, teachers, employers, and every person in our region, including you, the reader of this blog, to break barriers. We cannot continue leaving behind 85 million persons with disabilities.

Like other forms of exclusion, the gaps start with education: about 15% of children with disabilities ages 6 to 12 are out of school. And many of those that do attend school go to specialized institutions, segregated from the rest of their peers. Some stay home because of the stigma associated with their disability, which forces their parents to keep them out of school to protect them from discrimination or simply because they don’t believe they can learn. In Mexico, for instance, nearly 4 out of 10 persons with disabilities (15 years and older) reported never going to school because their parents didn’t believe it was necessary. And this is how it starts: from early childhood children with disabilities are often placed in a parallel world that marks the start of an invisible life.

As years pass by, it is less likely for students with disabilities to be in secondary school or universities, given that those who did start their education are more likely to drop out. When comparing households in similar socioeconomic conditions, children and youth with disabilities are 21% less likely to finish primary school, 23% secondary and 9% tertiary.

If this wasn’t enough, belonging to an ethnic or racial minority further aggravates the effects of exclusion. In Latin America and the Caribbean, certain groups (like being an indigenous or Afro-descendant) correlates with worse socioeconomic indicators, a lower accumulation of human capital and a narrow participation in decision-making spaces. For example, an afro-Uruguayan child with disabilities has 50% less chances of finishing primary school than a non-afro-Uruguayan peer without a disability. And this happens in one of the most egalitarian countries in our region.



Outside of the labor market

As we glance at offices, factories, and other workplaces, it is also less likely to find persons with disabilities. This is not surprising given that one out of two persons with disabilities is out of the labor market in the region. And for those that are formally employed, many times they are ignored by their employers when it comes to awarding promotions or, inexplicably, earn less for doing the same type of job than persons without disability.

Ethno-racial identities also amplify these wage gaps: in Bolivia, a worker with disability who self-identifies as indigenous or Afro-descendant earns 20 percent less compared to those who share the same ethno-racial identity but do not report a disability. Such inequalities grow even more when once takes into account gender disparities. Women with disabilities earn 17.5 % and 23% less in Peru and Costa Rica, respectively, compared to other women.

Invisibility also stems from the stigma and discrimination that forces individuals to hide their disability.  Though we lack robust regional data, global evidence shows that nearly 4 in 10 persons with psychosocial disability (linked to schizophrenia) find it necessary to hide their condition when applying for jobs, as employers tend to react negatively when candidates disclose a disability.

But discrimination can also arise in more intimate spaces. In El Salvador, for example, nearly half of all respondents with disability in a survey reported feeling discriminated against by their neighbors and 40% by their own family.

And these forms of invisibility continue through inaccessible public spaces, where there are very few or no persons with disabilities using public transportation, enjoying parks, circulating on sidewalks, or visiting museums. Their presence is equally scarce in dialogue and decision-making spaces, where their invisibility arises from the denial of legal capacity to the lack of accessible channels of participation.

Over time, these forms of invisibility caused by countless barriers can normalize the belief that persons with disability simply cannot work, go to school, make their own decisions or navigate cities under equal terms. 

But these barriers can be dismantled. First, by improving the diagnostic. Governments need to continue improving disaggregated data collection and analysis starting with the 2020 round of censuses through the adoption of international standards such as the Washington Group Set of Questions and by removing stigmatizing language. Second, by strengthening voice and participation of persons with disabilities. Lawmakers should address the restrictions to legal capacity and recognize the right to free and informed consent with regard to access to health services. The organizations of persons with disabilities are wonderful resources and partners. Third, by improving accessibility of transportation, public spaces, schools, and understanding that it benefits not only persons with disabilities, but all our citizens. And finally, by challenging our own prejudices to help fight stigma and discrimination.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard everyone in our region. But it has also uncovered the forms of vulnerability that some groups experience as well as the urgent need to build more inclusive and resilient societies. The pandemic has exposed the physical, social, mental, legal, and institutional barriers that are leaving behind persons with disabilities in our region. Let’s join forces and break these barriers by rebuilding our region to emerge from this crisis stronger, more resilient, more inclusive. 




Anna Wellenstein

Regional Director, East Asia and Pacific, Sustainable Development Practice Group, World Bank

Maria Elena García Mora

Senior Specialist, Social Sustainability and Inclusion

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000