Disabled People in International Development

by David Werner

NOTE: Dr. David Werner visited Angola in September of 1989. The following is a summary of his article “Visit to Angola” (see Newsletter #22).

A visitor to the capital of Luanda is immediately struck by the many disabled men, women, and children hobbling along with the help of wooden poles or crutches. Most of the disabilities are due to amputation or polio, both the result—directly or indirectly—of the “Low Intensity Conflict” (LIC) to which the Angolan people have been subjected since independence. The incidence of polio is due to the breakdown of health services in a land where access to rural areas has been cut off by random but persistent terrorist attacks along roads.

This war against the Angolan people is largely due to the intervention of foreign governments. The US government, for example, has poured millions of dollars of assistance—much of it in the form of ilitary hardware and training in the tactics of LIC—to UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) the “Rebel”, partly mercenary guerrilla troops sustained by South Africa.

The large number of disabled people is part of the strategy of LIC. Leaving people seriously disabled puts a greater economic burden on families and on the nation than does killing people. It also takes a bigger toll psychologically: disabled people remain far more visible than the dead.

I was invited to Angola to serve as a resource person at a training workshop on vocational rehabilitation of disabled persons. After a discussion of possibilities, we decided to actually try to make a variety of aids and appliances. For if disabled persons could master these skills, they would not only help to answer the mobility needs of the vast (and growing) numbers of disabled people, ut would also have important work to do.

We scrounged bits of wire, old broken plastic buckets, blown-out car tires and inner tubes, bits of metal, old packing crates, and branches from ornamental trees. From these items, the groups managed to create a wide range of devices, including: a log scooter-board with wooden wheels; a folding sitting frame for a disabled child; a special seat and toys for a cerebral palsied child; a tray suspended by cord for one-handed transport; parallel bars for learning to walk; an enclosed swing made from a tire turned inside out; underarm and Canadian crutches made from tree branches; hand “shoes” soled with pieces of car tire, for crawlers; an arm rocker permitting a person with paralyzed rms to feed self; ramps for wheelchair access and for exercise; an orthopedic lift for a sandal, made from old rubber sandal; a pair of leg braces, made from a plastic bucket, designed for a little girl with a severe, progressive bowing of the knees; a large wood wheel with flat wooden spokes, lined with car tire (the design was later adapted for the wheelchair); an all wooden wheelchair, made from old packing crates.

Perhaps the most worthwhile part of the workshop was the growth of understanding and mutual respect that took place among the participants. We learned from each other, and a new sense of appreciation, camaraderie and self-confidence developed.

The disabled persons also talked about forming a network or association—which would be a first for disabled people in Angola.

Our most sobering thought, however, was the realization that for every artificial limb or wheelchair or pair of crutches the members of our workshop produce once they return to their provinces, dozens of additional people will become disabled by the continuing war. We agreed that our rehabilitation efforts for and by disabled people—although important—do little to resolve the root problem. The root problem lies in a global power structure based on greed and unlimited acquisition for the few at the expense of the many, a power structure that strategically misinforms the public, while using illegal and immoral terrorist tactics to pursue its ends.

I returned from Angola convinced that the biggest changes regarding the disabled community in Angola need to be made in South Africa and in the USA. The US government must stop supporting terrorists who strategically disable individuals, communities and nations. The people of the United States must learn what their government is doing. They must know that it is violating international law and every code of human decency. They must know that such violence is causing untold death, disability, disease, displacement, and suffering.

They must see—and help their government to see—that in the long run there will be no winners.

Note: Since this article was written, Namibia has become an independent state. Angola thus no longer borders on South Africa, and is therefore no longer a “security threat” to South Africa. We can only hope that this will result in the situation in Angola becoming more stable and less violent.

Publication Information


This is an excerpt from “Visit To Angola: Where Civilians are Disabled As a Strategy of Low Intensity Conflict (LIC)” that first appeared in Vox Nostra No. 1 (1990).

This article appeared in “Disabled People in International Development,” Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH), Winnipeg Canada, produced with the assistance of the Public Participation Program, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).