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The disability-poverty cycle

In this video, Louisa Smith and Karen Soldatic explain how disability leads to poverty, and how poverty leads to disability.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. The disability-poverty cycle.
LOUISA SMITH: We’re going to be talking about disability and poverty, and poverty and impairment, and the kind of cycle that is created between these two things, because really, it is an interplay.
KAREN SOLDATIC: Mm. Mm. And we’re going to talk a little bit about this giving you some examples around some key areas where you’ll be able to identify the interplay really quite strongly, and then hopefully, in your day-to-day worlds you’ll be able to think about how this applies to other areas.
LOUISA SMITH: Yeah, so if you look at the mind map, or listen to the audio description of it, there is a clear circular pattern there that’s happening where we see poverty creating impairment, and disability creating poverty. So we’ll just talk through that a little bit. I think first of all though, it’s good to get a sense of what poverty actually is, because we often think of poverty, I think, as having depleted economic resources. So not having enough money, you know, that’s the immediate thing that we think of as poverty. Is not having enough money to just meet those basic needs. But I think importantly, poverty has other consequences and is really tightly bound to other social experiences.
KAREN SOLDATIC: So, I mean, if we think about poverty, I mean yes, it means that we have less money to buy things, but what does that actually mean in terms of to participate in things? Or in terms of our life opportunity. So, we know from the data and we know from human experience that people who are poor, whether they have a disability or not, are less likely to finish school. What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of life outcomes for them?
Well, they’re less likely to finish school because they can’t afford the books, they might have to walk quite long distances, they might not be motivated to go to school because they don’t feel that their experience as a poor person is going to lead to opportunities for work, for quite good work. So then from there that means that their access to the labour market and high quality jobs within the labour market are going to be minimal. And we also know that people who come from middle-class or upper-middle- class families, so they have money, actually get a lot of their jobs through their personal and family networks.
So if you’re poor, what that actually means is you don’t have access to those networks, which means you have to find other ways and other means to actually get access to economic resources. And that’s actually hard emotional work, and also hard physical work. So it takes a toll on your body, it takes a toll on your emotional well-being. And that’s what we call the process of embodiment. And that’s how we think about the outcome of impairment in relation to what poverty generates– the impacts on someone’s body.
LOUISA SMITH: Yeah. And just to extend that point. I think that idea of the emotional costs of poverty is really profound. That the amount of energy and emotion that it takes to not know where the next meal is going to come from, not have that sense of stability, is also a huge cost and is tightly bound up with poverty– that we can’t separate those things out, I don’t think. So now talking a little bit more about how this relates to disability and how poverty might create impairment. Could you talk a little bit about how that happens?
KAREN SOLDATIC: Sure. So if we think about people who live in poverty, particularly in the majority of the world, we know that they don’t have access to clean water. And clean water can lead to a huge number of benefits. We know clean water is important for large scale public health outcomes. So you don’t have access to clean water, therefore the kind of water you’re drinking, the food and so forth that you’re eating, there are consequences around that for your body that can lead to poor health outcomes.
Things such as household sanitation or living in clean and hygienic areas, we know that that has health implications, and if they aren’t treated early then that will lead to long term health implications or disability.
LOUISA SMITH: And I think that that’s really important. That idea that if you’re poor, there’s these basic needs that aren’t being met. But also, there is access to preventative and curative medicine that just isn’t available if you’re poor, and that you may not have access to certain forms of medicine that would really help and potentially prevent certain impairments.
KAREN SOLDATIC: Mm. And not just medicines too, but certain types of services, like garbage collection, water sanitation. Things that are offered in middle-class areas aren’t necessarily offered in poor areas.
LOUISA SMITH: Yeah. So I think then that’s, in a sense, a part of the cycle of how poverty creates impairment, but we also have this other edge of the cycle which is how disability can create poverty. And I think, going back to thinking about how there are so many disabling attitudes around disability, and there is still generalised discrimination against people with impairments, that results in restrictions of access in a variety of ways. For instance, affordable accommodation. If you can’t access accommodation because it’s not accessible to you– and most accommodation isn’t designed with people with a variety of impairments in mind– then usually accommodation is going to be much more expensive.
And that has great consequences for people with a variety of impairments and means that you know for instance, young people will often stay at home for a lot longer.
KAREN SOLDATIC: Because they can’t access housing. It also means that a lot of people with disabilities, when they do work, and they do move out of the parental home, are actually paying a lot more in rent. Not because they actually want to, but houses that have been renovated and refurbished to be accessible are clearly going to be more expensive on the rental market because of the fact that they’ve recently been renovated. So things like that actually place people with disabilities in a continual position of poverty.
LOUISA SMITH: Yeah. And I think there’s another point too, which is because often, accommodations that people with disabilities need, particularly specialist accommodations, say, for example, a wheelchair, or certain forms of assistive technology, or support personal assistants aren’t actually funded or supported. They cost money as well– often, at the individual’s cost. And obviously, that’s where a lot of disability policy can intervene if it’s funnelled in the right directions. But that doesn’t always happen.
KAREN SOLDATIC: So the disability-poverty cycle why it’s really a never ending cycle, unless there’s a kind of intervention that directly addresses the issue, is because people with disabilities have to constantly make choices about when and where and how they are going to participate, even if they can participate, because they have to financially manage those decisions for now and the future. And with that becomes what Louisa was talking about before. A level of emotional energy where they have to invest quite extensively to work through those issues and then come up with decisions that able-bodied people wouldn’t need to make.

As Louisa and Karen explain in the above video, poverty and disability are closely interrelated.

They refer to the cycle of disability and poverty mind map, which can be found at

The idea is simple: disability leads to poverty, and poverty leads to disability. This is illustrated at the top of the webpage, where you will see a graphic with arrows describing how the cycle works. There is also a video you can watch which explains this cycle, its causes and effects in more detail.
When thinking through the disability-poverty cycle, it’s important to remember that poverty is not evenly distributed around the globe. Let’s take a look at the World Bank’s tool to visualise global inequality:
Inequality visualisers from
The whole page is interesting, but scroll down until you see a world map on the right hand side, with a list of regions. Click on your region and you will be able to see statistical information about poverty and access to opportunity.
The maps and statistics on the World Bank website show that all countries have poverty; however, the level and experience of poverty varies depending on the country and the kinds of social supports provided by governments and communities. These statistics help us to understand how some particularly poor regions of the world will have higher rates of impairment. Impairment is not equally represented globally and is always interconnected with broader availability to opportunity.

Talking points

Share what you’ve learnt about your country/region with other participants. Think through the following:
  • What were you surprised to learn about your own region?
  • What impact do you think different global inequalities have on impairment and disability?
  • How do ideas of global poverty and the disability-poverty cycle fit with our idea of intersectionality?
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