Missing the One-Armed Man

April 02, 2008

Yes, it's true, I'd like to be able to vacation in Vegas. But that doesn't seem like a good blog entry for CGD, so I thought I'd write about something else instead. Though if anyone's looking for a blackjack buddy and has the scratch for the short hop from Monrovia, give a shout ;-)A few days ago, I was in one of Monrovia's nicer hotels, using the wireless internet to get some work done (by which I mean checking out all my buddies' facebook updates and reading stories on the NCAA tournament. I'm putting my Liberty on Izzo's boys as the sleeper pick). I looked over at a dude a few tables over, and I could swear I recognized him - eventually I realized he was the husband of one of my colleagues, a truly wonderful woman who is really one of the engines driving things forward at the Ministry Finance. So I took a couple glances at him to be sure, then wandered over and said hello.He wasn't the guy I thought of; but this being Liberia, he of course knew the man I had confused him for. He agreed that they looked alike, but pointed out that my colleague's husband - the man I had mistaken him for - has only one arm. He seemed to imply that people with a visibly obvious disability don't often get confused for those who are normally abled - and it's true that while I like to think I treat persons with disabilities and those without equally, I think it's hard to say I as a matter of course don''t notice seeing eye dogs, wheelchairs, or missing limbs.But here I did exactly that, missing the missing limb (if only the double-negative here brought the limb back, eh?). At first I felt fairly dumb, as I'm known for the occasional idiocy in this regard (my family still teases me about a long ago confusion of ducks and swans). Then I felt good about myself - 'Dan, well done, you've really crossed a line in your dealings with persons with disabilities'. Then (and I suppose this timing says something about my solipsism - this is after all about the 20th "I" in this blog post) I started to think about the context.In Liberia, while I don't know the numbers, a heck of a large percentage of the population is disabled, often the result either of the war or of poor nutrition. So many that I think it becomes commonplace; it is unremarkable to see someone with no legs pull up to the curb in a wheelchair, then use his arms to move into the store, parking his wheelchair at the curb (handicapped ramps are a few years off, as you might imagine). What's remarkable about this is how regular it makes disability. My uncle, who's blind, has spoken to me before about the awkwardness of explaining disability in America sometimes being as or more cumbersome as the actual loss of ability. Here, that's much less the case; the problem - which is certainly large - is centered more on the loss of capacity.The hard part to figure is how to respond. Equality of access is, it seems to me based on no specialized knowledge of any sort, usually pitched in the west as a sort of Rawlsian human rights issue. All individuals, regardless of their physical state, ought have the opportunity to work, live, etc., to participate fully in the fabric of society.Here, oughts don't play. No one ought make less than a dollar a day for hard work. No one ought to have gone through what so many folks here have dealt with for decades. But that's the reality, tragic though it may be. The question is what to do now - and the answer to that, it seems to me, needs to be a practical one. What investments are absolutely critical (I think of this as plugging holes in the boat)? Among those that aren't absolutely critical to ensure the ship doesn't sink, what has the greatest impact, and moreover changes the velocity of change, not just the level? (probably bigger sails, not cushy benches) I find myself wondering if there isn't scope to reevaluate 'rights' as the foundation for pushing for equality. With so many persons living with disabilities, this is a big sector - a big market, a big share of the labor force, to exclude, with all the implications that has both on economic development and on security, in the peacebuilding sense (unhappy folks are more likely to want to scrap the boat and try their luck on a raft). Maybe inclusion is more like a sail and less like a bench than I would have thought; I also wonder if there isn't a space somewhere to focus explicitly on employment for the disabled, not as charity but as a money-making venture... of course, someone probably has, and I just don't know it (total research before writing this = 0),But it does make me think about my feelings towards folks with disabilities here, and the foundations on which my belief in equal treatment does, and should, rest.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.