Stories from the Field: Unveiling the Perception of Disability Among Local People

Of the one billion population of persons with disabilities, 80% live in developing countries. However, our society is rife with misconceptions and stereotypes about disabilities, especially in local communities. On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Dipanwita Ghosh shares her field observations about the perception of disabilities in Bangladesh. 

Azida and her father Kaefaet. Photo by Jeffrey Davis, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I have had the opportunity to work on some exciting qualitative research projects since joining the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) as a qualitative researcher in February 2020. One of the most thought-provoking projects I am currently working on aims to understand the impact and effectiveness of holistic inclusive education for children with disabilities, in the context of Bangladesh. The research team for this study is conducting fieldwork in three municipalities of Bangladesh to recruit key informants. Key informants are local volunteers with good knowledge of and acceptance in their local communities (Mackey et al., 2012). In this project, their role would be to identify children with disabilities, aged 5 to 16, who we can select to be respondents for the research. To identify potential key informants, we are visiting field locations to know more about the area and become familiar with the locals.

One of the methods adopted to recruit local volunteers as key informants was to interact and build rapport with local shop owners and sellers within the community. This method was chosen because they have a greater opportunity, compared to other members of the community, to know the people who live in that community, as they interact with their customers throughout the day.

When we informed the potential volunteers that they would be required to work with children with disabilities, we observed some interesting perceptions about disability. One shopkeeper mentioned:

“A family with children with disabilities lives right next door to ours. We feel deeply saddened for that family. I feel sorry for them because they can’t do anything. With their disability, how could they possibly do anything?

Similar misconceptions, which converge towards a narrow definition of ‘ability’ and a vast underestimation of the abilities of people with disabilities, were observed among the locals in several communities. We found that people, and in some cases entire households, are labelled based on their disableism rather than their ableism. Discrimination has been experienced by people with disabilities, and there is still work to be done to remove the negative stigma associated with this type of social diversity (Harper, 2012).

While conducting a discussion session with the volunteers and local enumerators, one of the local enumerators said:

“We have to be respectful and sensitive towards disabled families while we go to the households to talk to them.”

Although the enumerator understood the importance of being respectful and sensitive towards the person with a disability or their family, he did not understand that having one or more family members with disabilities does not warrant labelling all the members of that family or the household as ‘disabled’.

We also found that many people have a one-dimensional perception of disability. Many thought people with disabilities include only individuals who do not have limbs. However, disabilities can be of different forms and severity, according to the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act (2013) of Bangladesh, defined by the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF).

Types of Disability in Bangladesh. Source: Bangladesh Disability Rights and Protection Act 2013

During our discussions, an assumption that each type of disability is homogenous was also observed among the community. But in reality, severities can vastly differ even within the same type of disability. In addition, two people with the same type and severity of disability may not have the same life experiences, hence the consequence of their disabilities may not be homogenous. According to ICF, mild, moderate, and severe disabilities are measured in terms of body structure, body function, activity of the person, and level of participation of the person in the community, which can be affected by social stigma and accessibility.  As a result of the findings from the fieldwork, it is evident that there is a gap in the understanding of disability among the locals and more opportunities to learn about disability are needed to better understand the situation.

Fieldwork and engagement with local people can reveal what they think about disability and how they perceive it. Challenges faced by people with disability in Bangladesh rarely gets attention in the public discourse. As a social science research institute with a vision to contribute to just and equal societies, disability is a priority research agenda for BIGD. We are committed to bringing the issues of this marginal population to light.

Harper, P. (2012). From disability to ability: Changing the phrasing of the debate. Disability & Society27(3), 325-337.

Mackey, S., Murthy, G. V., Muhit, M. A., Islam, J. J., & Foster, A. (2012). Validation of the key informant method to identify children with disabilities: methods and results from a pilot study in Bangladesh. Journal of tropical pediatrics58(4), 269-274.

Dipanwita Ghosh is a Research Associate in the Economic Growth Cluster of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.

“Stories from the Field” is an ongoing series where members of the BIGD team reflect on their experiences conducting research on-ground.