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Disability and Interdependence Crisis in Globalisation

Samuel Kabue1

The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor in turn can the head say to the foot, ‘I do not need you.’ On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are cloaked with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it. (1 Corinthians 12:21-27)

This is what interdependence looks like. Paul argues for the interdependent nature of the body, not the independent nature of the body, but the interdependent nature of the body.

Every human being is dependent throughout childhood, and maybe even somewhat into adolescence. We are dependent on other people. We probably continue to be dependent as we hit those teen years, and then we get into the stride of the late teens. We go to college and experience some autonomy, a bit of independence. Maybe even in our twenties we live life as independent individuals. Disabled people are no different. However, there comes a time when we recognize that we may have skills, gifts, and even training, but we are not complete in and of ourselves. We need other individuals in a vibrant community of strong biblical relationships. That is called interdependence. Interdependence is both the recognition that you have something to contribute, and the realization that you need the contributions of others who have been equipped for your benefit.

In the developed world, there has been a debate that welfare dependency is not about the failure of individuals. It is about the failure of systems and professionals to deliver the social support, which is the right of every citizen, in a way that empowers rather than disables. However, their argument is that they want to change where help is given and challenge how help is given. Too often, helping can hinder people’s independence, creating dependency, and undermining autonomy.

When we talk about the social relations of care, what comes to mind is the control or patronization of disabled people’s lives by professionals and carers who are meant to be supporting them, but who end up taking them over. I don’t want to be too cynical about the genuine motivations of many people towards kindness and help. But as Pope Pius XI said, "Charity cannot take the place of justice unfairly withheld."

Central to care is the philosophy of independent living. This is about listening to disabled people and their own priorities. Disabled people don’t have special needs; they have the same needs as everyone else. It is just that society doesn’t normally meet those needs. In order to give disabled people choice and power, the model of direct payments has been developed and adopted in some of the well-to-do states. In this system, the disabled person is entitled to and is in charge of their support budget, which enables them to employ personal assistants to make it possible for them to run their lives. Independent living is not about learning to do everything for oneself. It is about having the power to have other people to do for you what is necessary, in the way that suits you best.

When we talk about mutual obligation, we are not talking about sanctions for those who don’t conform to punitive social policies, but of the recognition that we cannot survive in society as individuals. As Abram de Swaan has written:

In striving to realize their objectives, human beings are forever dependent on one another; everyone depends on other people and almost everyone is needed by some others. That is what conveys to people their significance for their fellow human beings and that is where they find the fulfilment of their existence.

We have to recognise interdependence, mutuality and trust and those social relations within communities, which enable us to survive both as disabled people and as non-disabled people. Selma Sevenhuijsen promotes the idea of ‘caring solidarity’.

As presently constructed, globalization is a process limiting the powers of governments to intervene and shape the market, not least through the structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on developing countries and international trade and investment agreements. Globalization is a political process that lays great emphasis on competitive production. Consequently, it has been more or less widely considered to be synonymous with economic liberalization. With rather few exceptions, the rise of the new global economy has not been twinned with the creation of effective new international institutions to shape the market so as to produce more equal opportunities and outcomes, and to preserve the space for progressive social policies at a national level.

The economic impact of globalization on small, weak, open, developing economies has been in a large part devastating. Hemmed in by mounting debt problems and increasing trade deficits, which worsen as a result of depreciating terms of trade. Developing economies have therefore experienced the strangulation of their productive capacities. Deregulation of exchange controls has increased the risk of capital flights and dissemination of productive economic structures.

The proponents of globalization advocate that we have to slash taxes and social spending weaken the labour movement and commodify and marketize health care and education in order to attract investment and successfully compete in the new and more integrated global environment. In a globally integrated economy, the production and mobile investment capital will tend to flow to those countries where investors and corporations find low wages, low taxes, and low legislated social and environmental standards, setting in train a competitive race to the bottom.

Critics have characterized the spread of global capitalism as the globalization of poverty and the modern continuation of imperialism, which has created or perpetuated poverty and inequality in the Third World. This is due to the failure to put international development, the environment and human rights at the forefront of the global agenda. This operates through its key defining features of: increased international economic integration with respect to trade and investment; large and growing inequalities between and within countries; the marginalization of the poor; the commodification of virtually all areas of life; and, above all, the growing power of unaccountable transnational corporations vis-à-vis citizens and their democratically elected governments.

In some places, globalisation has surely affected persons with disabilities who are estimated to be one in ten of the planet's inhabitants. Economic barriers, that appear impassable, that prevent full participation in their economies and society, can become insurmountable in less advanced economies and when added to other factors of social marginalization they can condemn hundreds of millions of people to exclusion and poverty and to living on the fringe of society.

However, the impact of the information revolution and the globalisation of our markets have ushered in new forms of exclusion. We are turning a century characterised by enormous social and technological advances, which have fostered unimaginable growth in activities and consumption. These advances have facilitated communications and contact between societies and individuals in such fast-changing terms that they are difficult to assimilate. Simultaneously, the pillars for a new world order are being laid, based on global dimensions, continuous interaction and the de-localisation of the essential factors in our traditional models of political, social and economic organisation. However, this growth has not been socially neutral, it brings with it the undesirable consequences of territorial inequality, environmental tensions, social inequality and clashes between the cultures and values of different societies and groups.

In the depreciating economies, it is those who are already at the bottom of its structures who feel most intimately the effect of degenerating conditions. In many developing societies, women bear the brunt of economic deprivation, fending for families in conditions often more favourable to men. Women with disabilities in many developing countries therefore face double jeopardy. Disabled youth too often face a blighted future in these depreciating economic conditions in which rehabilitation costs are prohibitive and unemployment rates high. Special consideration must be given to the young who stand to live more years of their productive lives in the emerging economies and social conditions.

The information age has however also brought some significant new insights as technological advancements. Coupled with increased disability-rights legislation, disabilities are no longer as handicapping as was once the case, vocationally, socially, or recreationally. The independent-living and disability-rights movements began when the information age started creating jobs that need almost no muscle power and fostered the development of assistive devices.This is good news. The bad news is a bit of backlash. In the first place, where unemployment rates are high with able bodied people competing for the few opportunities, they will not like to share the available jobs with formerly excluded groups. They will not certainly be amused to join the hymns of praise being sung today for full inclusion of people with disabilities. Secondly, however liberating and enabling the new technology may be, it is economically out of reach for the majority of persons with disabilities especially in the Third World. This difficulty is further compounded by the poor educational background and therefore less opportunity for training.

Globalization and the Celebration of Interdependence

A key element of globalization, perhaps the key element in achieving a global society, is our predominant, collective attitude toward diversity. We hear a great deal these days about "the celebration of diversity," but to persons with disabilities, what is happening under that banner looks more like increased separatism and re-tribalization than mutual embrace and unification. Let's be sure we understand what diversity represents and why it's considered worthy of celebrating.

The progress in the fields of medicine and technology has been so great and effective that if these advances are fully applied, natural disabilities can be overcome, the effects of disease and poverty can be eradicated and people with the widest diversities can live in full integration. This, of course, will only be achieved if new technologies and scientific advances are applied for the good of all. They must be designed for "general use". Otherwise, far from freeing humankind their fetters, this technology will simply constitute another link in the chain that historically has condemned the disabled to subordination and dependence.

Correctly used, technical and material opportunities will help each person fulfil a meaningful role in society, contributing the best of their knowledge and skills. In some instances people will use technical means and instruments to extend their own communication and action capacities, means and instruments without which they would otherwise be unable to contribute to society and economic life.

We know that employment is a primary concern of today's citizens throughout the world. Having a job is not only a means to economic independence, it symbolises a meaningful role in society, enjoying recognition as the subject of rights and obligations, being in the hub of the virtuous circle of social welfare. For many, not having a job means living on the fringe of society, or being excluded altogether. Most societies are organised around occupations and employment. Many of our most cherished values are based on how the individual relates to productive activities. Not having any job places a person at risk of social exclusion because our social model is based on cultural patterns articulated around engagement in work.

Opportunities for work must be provided for all, no matter what each person's capacity may be. Work is the vehicle that allows people a source of belonging to a social group. All members of society must be able to take advantage of new opportunities that economic development offers. The potential of new technologies, particularly enhanced communication and access to information, has become a tool to wield incalculable power that can be used to prevent marginalization and exclusion

And remember: disabled people don’t want to be dependent, financially or socially. Disabled people want to work. Promoting independent living is a way of enabling disabled people to work and become productive and make a contribution to society. So direct payments schemes can be cost-effective.

Yet when the disability movement, especially in the West, talks about independent living, I think there is an important proviso. Sometimes it becomes a very individualist model. It sounds in some versions as if disabled people are demanding the right to be as selfish and separate as everyone else. But feminists and others have criticised the philosophy of liberal individualism. They point out that no one is truly independent. We all rely on other people all the time. Therefore, while campaigning for barrier removal and independent living, we need to recognise the interdependence that is the true model of a supportive community.

For those concerned with social welfare and social justice, the case for greater income equality and for a larger public sector is confirmed. But what about economic efficiency and international competitiveness in the new global economy? It could, perhaps, be argued that what counts in the new global economy are the skills, talents and capacities and that the health, skills and 'human capital' of the rest of society are of little account. But this is surely absurd, and economists of almost all persuasions are all but unanimous on the need to invest in the 'human capital' of the entire population to achieve success in the new 'knowledge-based' global economy.

The central point is that privatization and the erosion of the public and non-profit sectors are already being promoted through binding trade and investment agreements to some degree, and that the pressures are mounting.

The churches are in no doubt that the ethics of economic globalisation are ethics of competition and domination, which favour individualism and foster consumerism at the expense of social cohesion and sustainability of the community of life. The Christian vision of oikoumene, that of unity of humankind, is a vision of acceptance, consideration and inclusion of the seemingly weak and the marginalized. It is a vision of cooperation with all people of goodwill in defence of creation. It is solidarity with those forced to survive the tidal waves of injustice sweeping across the globe. It is this realization that has brought about a spirited campaign for economic justice by the World Council of Churches, its member churches, and cooperating ecumenical development agencies. In the last few years this campaign has largely been directed on the negative effects of globalization and especially the unfair trade practices that come with it.

Using our own experience of interdependence in our activism embeds our needs within universal human needs and interests. No more separatism, apartheid or special needs. Community is enriched by the diversity of the full presence of all kinds of people, people with disability among them. A genuine community—a civil society—a sustainable world—is not possible without them.

Unrealistic? Utopian thinking, you say? This is what author and Federal Parliamentarian Lindsay Tanner has to say about relationship as a basis for broad social and economic policy:

The depth and quality of our human relationships determines the strength of our society and the quality of our lives. It’s time to put relationships at the centre of the political debate. We can reignite the hope that is so vital to social and economic progress, and heal the divisions crippling our efforts to build a more cohesive and inclusive society. Building stronger relationships is the key to creating a better society.2

Of course the world in the interdependent view is not paradise on earth. Disability, hardship and difficulty will not be absent. We will just be better at surfing the wave rather than be wiped out by it. Tanner is not alone in his sentiments. For instance, important streams within feminist thought emphasise social policy around human dependence and environmentalists value social and bio-diversity. Emerging think tanks such as the Australia Institute, the Australian Collaboration, and WA Collaboration base their work on interconnectedness. We could add value to our message and gain strength in cooperation with such groups and they would benefit from our focus on what life is about at its deepest levels.

Undoubtedly this is a difficult task. Take for a start the difficulties in talking about dependence and vulnerability as something to be acknowledged as part of a whole and flourishing life. Of course this is rejected knowledge in a world that fears these states. For good reasons the disability movement has itself been silent on such topics. You’d be a wimp to even mention them. But I believe that the practical agenda of our experience is one that may lead to a sustainable society where respect for diversity means something: full engagement with all aspects that make up life and with all those who are in it.

What does this mean in practice? Briefly, I see four broad categories that would identify a disability movement that were based on interdependence. First, it would use the common human denominator of relationships in framing its vision of people with disability as integral to a civil society. Second, it would strengthen alliances among the like-minded, both internal and external to the disability movement. This would mean alliances across disability labels and with other social groups that put relationship central. It would also mean supporting and strengthening those parts of the disability movement and services that already genuinely focus on relationship. Third, it would emphasise relationship and connection in its own language and in its organisational structure. The latter would feature diverse funding sources and networks leaning away from one-dimensional funding sources and hierarchical models. Fourth, it could put greater effort into engaging with the difficult bio-ethical issues that go to the heart of our existence. That’s because these are precisely the issues where dependency and vulnerability loom large.


The times seem ripe for us to reorient ourselves to rapidly changing circumstances. More than ever the world is in need of the kind of resilience that comes from acknowledgment of the human condition as involving dependence and vulnerability. The knowledge of interdependence involves that of knowing how to live well with limits, in relationship to others and our environment. The disability experience is rich in such knowledge. Accepting people with disabilities as integral to sustainable community would be the most important safeguard that we could achieve in our turbulent world. The disability movement possesses some hard-won foundations upon which it can build and renew itself, along the lines of the disability experience of interdependence. It could realign the disability agenda with that which makes us all potentially more fully human. We have to be the change we’d like to see. In a word, that means drawing on our experience of relationship.

All of these effects of globalization turn out to be so immense for disabled people since one aspect of globalization is competition for market forces, technology and skills, labour market that demand high qualified personnel. The disabled, who are viewed in the market economy as not being able to give any input in the economy, are therefore seen as are worthless. Disabled people who have missed out these opportunities of acquiring sustainable professional capacities and economical power are definitely going to be losers in the struggle.

Globalisation has set in motion a process of far-reaching change that is affecting everyone. New technology supported by more open policies, has created a world more interconnected that ever before. This spans not only growing interdependence in economic relations, trade, investment, finance and the organization of production globally, but also social and political interaction among organizations and individuals across the world. Globalisation has led to increased material production, more open markets, employment, all of which are very essential components in poverty reduction.

What is needed is a process of globalization with a strong social dimension based on universally shared values and respect for human rights and individual dignity; one that is fair, inclusive, democratically governed and provides opportunities and tangible benefits for all countries and people. A vibrant civil society is empowered by freedom of association and expression, and reflects and voices the full diversity of views and interests. Organizations representing public interests, the poor and other disadvantaged groups are also essential for ensuring participatory and socially just governance.


1 Rev. Samuel Kabue is a Kenyan minister and a person with disability working as Director of EDAN (Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network) which is related to the WCC programme on persons with disabilities within the Justice, Peace and Creation Team. He presented this at the pre-assembly forum in Chiang Mai.

2 L. Tanner, Crowded lives (Australia: Pluto Press, 2003) p. 111.


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