Challenging Decisions about the Ways to Support Disability Leadership

When looking to support leadership among persons with disabilities, where do you begin?

This is a question that might seem to be both practical and philosophical. Good. It is meant to be. And to be clear, when I talk about beginning, I am referring to the place where one begins their thought process.

This question arose in conversation with a good friend and colleague. For many years now, both of us have been working on issues of disability in the global South or disability and development (feel free to choose your favourite name for this field). Both of us have engaged with this work as non-governmental organization (NGO) employees and as academics – although each of us has had a distinct career trajectory. The similarities and differences between our biographies mean that we can speak a common language while seeing topics from different sides.

The discussion arose in response to a previous interaction that my friend had experienced. In that previous interaction, other colleagues – with the power to decide how to allocate money for disability empowerment – had proposed a change in strategy: instead of disbursing the money through international NGOs responsible for empowerment programming, it should instead be given directly to Disabled Persons’ Organizations (DPOs) at the national or sub-national level.

The rationale for the proposal was related to the efficiency and operating practices of those international NGOs. These are valid points – even though they might systematically overlook the value that NGOs might contribute to the process, especially when sub-granting to smaller organizations. But these points were not the ones that caught our attention. Instead, the two of us were interested in the implications of exclusively dealing with DPOs.

At this point, it seems wise to identify some of the values that my friend and I hold. We both believe that persons with disabilities are systematically disempowered by situations and societies that withhold opportunities from the disabled. We believe that leadership – not only training but also meaningful leadership opportunities – are fundamental to empowerment. We both believe that the disadvantage of disability is not unidimensional; it must be understood together with other factors like gender, rural residence, race, language group, and even impairment category.

Considering our beliefs collectively further propels us to ask: what is likely to happen if our support of disability leadership begins with the pledge to work exclusively with DPOs?

For us, the answer to this question is partially speculative but still informed. From our own experience, if there is funding for DPOs, then new DPOs will be formed. This proliferation of DPOs can be a good thing – it does mean more leaders and more DPO activities – while it can also mean that constituencies subdivide, often according to more specific elements of their impairments, reducing unity and increasing conflict.
Exclusively funding DPOs by definition excludes the support of other types of organizing, for example, the engagement of charismatic leaders with disabilities who might otherwise lead “mainstream” movements focused on other causes, like women’s organizing or anti-poverty initiatives. Once again by definition, exclusively funding DPOs supports the “specialized track” (or segregated track) of the “twin track approach” of improving the situation of persons with disabilities.

Of course, the other half of the twin track approach is the “inclusive track,” focused upon ensuring that persons with disabilities are have access to “mainstream” services, programs, and activities. Of the two tracks, the inclusive track is generally seen as the more important one, as the ultimate goal (whereas the specialized track is seen to be an interim measure – pursued only when the inclusive track is elusive). This conception of the twin track mirrors our conception of optimal ways to support the leadership of persons with disabilities; although a specialized approach – like only supporting DPOs – seems plausible, it would be sub-optimal. After all, what my friend and I understand to be the problem, exclusion of the disabled from leadership opportunities, is most logically countered by an inclusive strategy.

My friend and I felt some satisfaction at the fact that we shared our opinions of ways to begin looking at support for disability leadership and were able to adopt a sort of consensus between us. Yet that was not the prime value of the conversation. For us, the most enjoyable aspect was finding that someone else wanted to discuss the matter with some depth and nuance. Like my friend’s colleagues, we believe that this issue is important. And for that reason, we hope that we can convince those colleagues and many others to reflect upon, discuss, and even debate different foundations from which to support leadership among persons with disabilities.

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