Economist Sophie Mitra studies people with disabilities in developing countries.
Photo by Angie Chen

According to the latest U.S. Census projection, people with disabilities accounted for 19.3 percent of the American population. In India, the estimate was 2.1 percent, and in South Africa, it was 4.3 percent.

To Sophie Mitra, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics, such statistics were beguiling; logic would dictate that an industrialized, affluent nation should show fewer, not more, people with disabilities (PWDs).

But Mitra soon discovered that people with disabilities were there, all right: they just weren’t being counted. They constituted, in effect, an invisible minority.

“There is a lack of awareness for how big this group really is,” said Mitra, a native of France who worked with the World Bank and the Overseas Development Institute before coming to the United States to do post-doctoral analysis in labor economics. “When I decided to research disability in developing countries, I discovered that it is very hard to find quality data.

“We are talking about the poorest of the poor, those often shut out of employment opportunities. Because they are not visible in society, there is little awareness that this group needs to be studied.”

PWDs include those with limited vision, hearing impairment, mental retardation or mental illness, difficulty with physical activities such as walking or carrying, and difficulty in school, housework or other daily activities.

In the past six years, Mitra, a specialist in developing economies, has made use of new data sources to study the invisible minority in developing nations. As a microeconomist, her research is data-based and impartial. As a human being, Mitra hopes that the results of her research will help empower groups who are socially and economically ostracized from opportunities to be productive.

In South Africa, Mitra looked at how a social pension program, the Disability Grant (DG) for working-age people who could not work due to a disability, was affecting its intended group and the nation’s workforce. Between 2001 and 2004, some South African provinces eased their screening rules for the DG, and the number of beneficiaries tripled. By 2005, close to 4 percent of the population was on DG.

“Some observers said that this was one of the worst social assistance programs ever, that anybody could get on disability,” Mitra said.

Comparing several provinces with lenient screening practices against one retaining the original screening test, Mitra discovered that there was little evidence that the new set of rules spawned program dependency. Labor market behaviors remained largely unchanged and the program was well-targeted, Mitra said, compared to other disability programs around the world.

However, her data revealed a decrease in the employment of one group—working-age PWDs who could work. Given increased access to DG, some may have chosen not to work, or even to look for work.

The findings, Mitra said, can help grassroots NGOs target services to encourage people with disabilities who can still work, to rejoin the labor force.

“While it is great to have a social grant available if people are poor and have no ability to work, you also want to empower people to be independent,” said Mitra.

India has experienced tremendous economic growth in the last decade, yet, according to Mitra, the nation had scant raw data on the economic well-being of people with disabilities.

Mitra collaborated with the World Bank and some NGOs to conduct a household survey in rural areas of the Tamil Nadu province—one of India’s most productive areas—that would explore employment among male PWDs.

Mitra noted that in the U.S., Great Britain and Sweden, there is evidence that the wages of PWDs are about 30 percent lower than those of people without disabilities. In India, however, Mitra discovered that PWDs in the Tamil Nadu work force faced little, if any, wage discrimination.

“In an Indian village labor market, wages are pretty rigid,” said Mitra.

While the wage gap was minimal, however, the employment gap was huge. The study revealed strong negative attitudes toward PWDs’ employment potential. The negative attitudes, said Mitra, contribute to the low employment rate among the PWDs.

Although India’s Disability Act of 1995 offers incentives to employers who hire PWDs for a percentage of their work force, most employers have not climbed on board. And Mitra’s previous research has revealed that most new programs promoting employment for the disabled are urban-centric.

“The attitude of the government has often been, ‘We have so many problems, we can’t deal with these vulnerable groups; we have too much to handle with the overall economy,’” Mitra said.

Both studies, Mitra said, will bring more visibility to a population that is up to five times larger than previously thought. The India study, which recommends more educational efforts to reduce the stigma against PWDs, has already been incorporated in a new governmental plan.

“The driving force to my research is that it produces knowledge that informs policy and program development for vulnerable groups,” she said. “That is my hope.”

– Janet Sassi


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]