Disability stigma and assistive technology

Elizabeth Johnson, Research Officer, Data and Disability

Elizabeth is our Research Officer, Data and Disability. She talks about the importance of data and how our recent research highlighted the stigma in Kenya around using assistive technology.

John, Virginia, Vilda and Jennifer, who we support through our Inclusive Education Project in Kisumu

When it comes to understanding the challenges and barriers disabled people face worldwide, data is vital. It helps paint a global picture and identifies which barriers need addressing. Yet, there is still a lack of good quality disability data. Meaning many of these barriers, which differ from country to country, remain unchallenged. High-quality research – whether qualitative or quantitative - equips disability advocates to influence policies and practices better. Ultimately helping to create a fairer, more equal world.

We know disability stigma in many low-and-middle-income countries can be one of the most pervasive barriers, especially when accessing services. We wanted to explore this idea more. So recently, we co-authored an article in collaboration with the Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub) and Shujazz Inc. The research explored the barriers disabled people in Kenya face accessing assistive technology.

Working with GDI Hub and Shujazz Inc

Initially, we had carried out two separate pieces of work. At Leonard Cheshire, we held consultation meetings with representatives of 10 Kenyan Organisations of Persons with Disabilities. As well as people with disabilities and their non-disabled allies. The discussion aimed to gather their views on stigma and discrimination in Kenya. These views would help design a stigma reduction intervention.

Meanwhile, GDI Hub and Shujazz Inc had taken a different route. They held group discussions with young Kenyans without disabilities. The focus here was to understand how they conceptualised disability. Also, to assess the role assistive technology plays in shaping their perceptions of disability.

The two studies complemented each other. This allowed us to share insights on what contributes to disability stigma and discrimination in Kenya. The combination of overlapping and divergent findings led to a joint research article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

What we learnt from our research

The research proved really fruitful. It helps us understand the links between disability stigma and assistive technology. Both groups highlighted assistive technology was an influential factor when identifying someone as having a disability. Negative attitudes towards disability meant in some contexts, these devices were seen negatively. It even prompted some people with disabilities to avoid them all together.

Worryingly, the research found stigma is a common experience for Kenyans with disabilities. Despite the many benefits of assistive devices, the danger of experiencing stigma and discrimination outweighed the benefits in some instances.

The impact of stigma in the community

The influence of traditional, religious or other spiritual and societal beliefs also had a mixture of positive and negative implications. Some defined disability as a punishment, prompting negative stigma. Viewing disability as a curse or punishment meant young people without disabilities would actively avoid people with disabilities. They had fears of association. But, positive community attitudes also made an impact. In some rural communities, respondents spoke of proactive efforts towards inclusion. Some community leaders emphasised ensuring people with disabilities had equal access to services.

We also looked at youth without disabilities. And it became clear that for many, attitudes towards disability were built on associations about disability rather than real-world interactions. For people who had frequent interactions with disability, the associations were more positive. This demonstrates inclusive models are vital in making an impact on minimising disability stigma. And these models are essential in environments like schools, communities and the workplace.

Why we need to reduce the stigma around assistive technology

This research was a fascinating insight into how attitudes and stigma can impact the lives of people with disabilities. These attitudes influenced the uptake of assistive devices. It showed how people using assistive devices can be judged both positively and negatively.

It is clear that stigma is a barrier that impacts whether people with disabilities use assistive technology. And that stigma reduction interventions should be part and parcel in efforts to scale up access to assistive technology. That way, not only will people with disabilities have access to assistive technology. But they will feel confident and comfortable using them.

Our research

We've co-authored a report called When They See a Wheelchair, They’ve Not Even Seen Me— Factors Shaping the Experience of Disability Stigma and Discrimination in Kenya" with GDI Hub and Shujazz Inc. 

Our research was funded by UK Aid, under the AT2030 project led by the GDI Hub.

Read about our research on disability stigma and discrimination in Kenya