Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

the forgotten minority

Professor Maps Out the Economic Well-being of Disabled People in Developing Nations

Sophie Mitra

Sophie Mitra, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics at Fordham, is making use of several data sources to help bring more visibility to people with disabilities, a population that is up to five times larger than previously thought.

“In developing countries, there is a lack of information and awareness on how big this group really is,” said Mitra, a native of France who worked with the World Bank and the Overseas Development Institute before coming to the United States to do postdoctoral
research in labor economics and development issues. “When I first decided to research disability in developing countries there was so little being done to help people with disabilities. I realized there was a real need for scientific research.”

People with disabilities include those with limited vision, hearing impairment, mental retardation or mental illness, difficulty with physical activities such as walking or performing housework or other daily activities.

“We are talking about the poorest of the poor, those often shut out of employment opportunities,” she said. “Because they are not visible in society, there is little awareness that this group needs research and policy attention. I attempt to contribute by building evidence.”

After arriving at Fordham in 2005, Mitra looked at how a social pension program in South Africa—the Disability Grant for working-age people who could not work due to a disability—was affecting its intended group and the nation’s workforce. Her findings helped grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) target services to encourage people with disabilities who can still work to rejoin the labor force and provided information to policy makers on the poverty reduction and employment effects of the Disability Grant program.

Mitra also collaborated with the World Bank and some NGOs to conduct a household survey in rural areas of the Tamil Nadu province—one of India’s most productive areas—that would explore employment among males with disabilities.

More recently, Mitra researched the link between poverty and disability in 16 developing countries, including Brazil, Paraguay, Ghana, Malawi, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Mitra analyzed data on several dimensions of economic well-being, including employment; education; the ratio of medical expenditures; per capita household expenditures; proximity to sewage; and access to a clean water supply—to get a more accurate picture of the correlation between poverty and disability. She used data collected by the World Health Organization and released in 2007 and is currently writing preliminary results.

“Dimension by dimension, results vary from country to country,” she said. “But when we took a multidimensional measurement of poverty, we found in fourteen out of the sixteen countries that households with disabilities suffer from multiple economic deprivations in some forms, whether it’s nonemployment and lack of education in one country or poor living conditions in another.”

“These are the areas that should be a top priority for people working to improve the economic well-being of households with disabilities.”

In addition to empowering the socially and culturally marginalized, Mitra hopes her work ultimately influences policy.

“The driving force of my research is that it produces knowledge that informs policy and program development for vulnerable groups,” she said. “That is my hope.” 

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