The world’s population will exceed 9 billion in 2050. If the world cannot feed its current population, how will all 9 billion people be fed? Research suggests
that the overall food production will need to increase by 25-70 percent between now and 2050. In many African countries, where hunger is already a serious problem, disabled people are barred from involvement in economic activities. In Africa, an estimated 60-80 million people are living with disabilities today.
We cannot afford to leave anyone behind during the next evolution of agricultural pursuits.
The Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) uses a broad definition of disability: “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”. One in five of the world's poorest, is a person with a disability and it is estimated that 82 percent of persons with disabilities live below the poverty line. When compared to men, women with disabilities face significantly more difficulties in feeding their families. All of these statistics are a concern.
In most developing countries, agriculture is the main form of economic activity in rural areas. The most vulnerable people are often the first to be excluded from access to water, land, and essential information about agricultural management, thereby facing immense challenges in agricultural activities. An “infrastructural barrier” in many developed nations can mean not having a wheelchair ramp. In many African nations it means not having a wheelchair. Being excluded from agricultural activity means being excluded from community and the opportunity to earn a living. People with disabilities are thus at greater risk for hunger and poor nutrition, as well as resulting secondary conditions.
As we talk about disabilities, it is important to differentiate among people with disabilities: physical and cognitive, those who were born with medical conditions, and those who became disabled due to disease or accidents. As a matter of fact, because agriculture is mainly a physical pursuit, it is important to pay special attention to able bodied farmers who, as the result of farming accidents, exposure to harmful agents, or age, have become either temporarily or permanently disabled during the course of their agricultural work. How can agricultural opportunities be accessed by this wide variety of people with disabilities?
In the United States, several models already exist
. For adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities such as autism, group living farms embrace the slower pace of an agricultural lifestyle. On these farms, individuals “earn their way” by performing farming tasks and taking produce from seed to farmstand. These communities teach valuable life skills such as good nutrition, farming, processing and packaging, social skills, and customer service in addition to overall agricultural employability.
The Camphill Foundation also offers a community based approach
for allowing people with disabilities to access agricultural resources. Although headquartered in North America, they now offer programs in Europe, India, South Africa, and Botswana. Inclusive agricultural community models could be implemented in developing countries and could yield a significant positive impact on food production in areas where such communities are actively farming. However, before becoming sustainable through the production, processing, and sales of crops, these programs would require significant funding, training, and public education campaign resources. It is important not to underestimate the latter. In Zimbabwe as well as many other African Nations, disabilities can be perceived as a curse that has been levied upon an individual or a family by someone else in the community. In Guatemala and some other South American nations, disability may be perceived as the result of sin. The stigma attached to these beliefs is often as damaging as the disability itself. These erroneous belief systems needs to be thoroughly addressed before any effort at engaging people with developmental or mental health disabilities in agricultural communities will be accepted. The Jairos Jiri Foundation in Zimbabwe is the only organization that has begun to make inroads in this area. Since the 1940s they have offered agricultural training, factory work, and craft making programs for individuals with physical disabilities. Stigma must be addressed, opportunities must be substantially funded, and the contribution of disabled individuals must substantialize so as to be of benefit to the entire community. If this is done well, the contributions of disabled people to the agricultural expansion in developing nations could be extremely effective.
For individuals disabled in farming accidents or other accidents, again the US offers some program models, adaptive technologies, and anecdotal stories of triumph. For instance, in 2009 Growing Magazine described
a family running a productive farm even though the father lost his hands in a farming accident and the son was born with cerebral palsy. Both make use of adaptive technology to get their jobs done. An organisation called Agrability offers resources, suggestions for adaptive farming technology, and shares stories of farmers successfully farming in spite of their disability. Lifts that allow paraplegic farmers access to tractors and other farming equipment, field sturdy wheelchairs, pesticide backpacks, ear protection to prevent hearing loss, environmental controls and so forth are all covered in Agricultural Extension papers on Agrability’s website
. Although very inspiring, many of these adaptations would be harder to implement in many developing nations. In many developing countries, agriculture is still performed on a smaller scale and without access to the types of farming equipment that could be adapted. For example, a lift would be of no help for a farmer tilling the land with oxen pulling his plough. Wheelchairs, much less field sturdy ones, would be a luxury most farming families could not afford. And medical technology such as hearing aids or even eyeglasses is largely inaccessible to rural communities in Zimbabwe and other developing nations. Companies manufacturing these adaptations should be encouraged to work on partnerships making this personal equipment available to anyone who needs it around the world.
However challenging, these hurdles are not insurmountable. Now is the time to address the financial, physical, and cultural barriers to involving people with disabilities in the agricultural realm. As developing nations continue to expand their economies and education opportunities, they should also expand opportunities for the disabled. The needs for agricultural production are beginning to explode and the potential for people with disabilities to make a substantial, enduring, and fulfilling impact on the agricultural sector remains largely untapped, and must be explored.