Disability and Poverty in Puerto RicoAccording to the U.S. National Council on Disability (NCD), nearly one in six citizens in Puerto Rico have a disability. This equates to 22% of the population. People with disabilities (PWD) are twice as likely to live in poverty. With a national poverty rate of 44%, PWD in Puerto Rico face tremendous disadvantages, warranting a necessary examination into implementable solutions.

The Price of Poverty

There are six categorizations for disabilities: hearing, visual, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care and independent living.

According to the 2017 Disability Status Report on Puerto Rico, individuals with cognitive disabilities have the most prevalent poverty rate of 58.2%. However, despite having the lowest poverty rate for PWD, visual disabilities still result in a 52.2% rate. While the poverty rate has decreased slightly, dropping to just below 50% in 2022, there is still a concerning link between disability and poverty in Puerto Rico.

Explanations for the levels of poverty in Puerto Rico

First, there are minimal job opportunities available for PWD in Puerto Rico. In 2022, the National Council on Disability noted that only about 23.7% of Puerto Ricans with disabilities play an active role in the workforce. This is a significant contrast to the 36% of PWD in the U.S.

Second, disability accommodations are costly. The NCD found that “the cost of specialized [durable medical equipment] was 11% to 58% higher in Puerto Rico versus the [U.S.].” As of the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau, Puerto Rico’s annual income per capita is approximately $14,000, making it a massive financial burden to pay for expensive equipment like electric wheelchairs.

In the mainland U.S., citizens can qualify for supplemental income and financial assistance if they have a disability and/or fall below the annual income threshold. Despite being a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans are not entitled to these same benefits.

For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly colloquially known as “food stamps,” is not available in Puerto Rico. Instead, the territory is allocated a block grant, which has not been adjusted for inflation or unforeseeable disasters.

In addition, an April 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision officially excluded Puerto Ricans from the federal Supplemental Security Income program (SSI). SSI provides direct financial assistance to low-income U.S. citizens with disabilities. This vote further entrenches the exclusion and marginalization of Puerto Ricans with disabilities.

Progress Toward Equality

In lieu of SSI, the government allocates funds to the Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled (AABD) program. AABD’s supplemental assistance aims to meet the basic, daily needs of PWD in Puerto Rico. To receive this aid, individuals have to endure a “physical or mental impairment that will likely not improve and which prevents them from performing their previous job or any other paid work” and own less than $2,000 in total assets.

The Division of Human Development and Disability (DHDD) also provides early diagnosis and intervention services to aid children with disabilities throughout their development. One example of DHDD projects is the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) programs. EDHIs work to examine a child’s risk for hearing loss and ensure an appropriate diagnosis and accommodations are put in place.

While these services show a commitment to aiding PWDs in Puerto Rico, assistance programs such as the AABD are limited. The funding is meager and split between adult assistance, foster care and adoption assistance. Instead of the $750 for an SSI recipient, AABD participants only receive $75. Therefore, more comprehensive efforts are necessary to alleviate the impact of disability and poverty in Puerto Rico.

Despite challenges, there are gradual improvements in living conditions for Puerto Ricans with disabilities. Overall, the ongoing efforts of both the U.S. and Puerto Rico hold the potential to reduce poverty and enhance the quality of life for Puerto Ricans.

– Katrina Girod 
Photo: Pixabay

children with disabities

There are approximately 1.5 billion people around the world living with a disability. These individuals face significant barriers to receiving an education, particularly in developing countries. Children with disabilities in Bangladesh, for example, are often misunderstood by their parents, community members and educators, making it difficult for them to attend school. Showing links between poverty and disabilities helps make this issue a priority of the Bangladesh government and other organizations working in the nation.

Poverty and Disabilities

In developing countries, poverty and disabilities often reinforce each other. According to the World Bank, 15 to 20 percent of the poor in developing countries are disabled. Many disabilities are created by conditions caused by poverty, including lack of healthcare access, poor hygiene and sanitation, dangerous living conditions, war and violence, insufficient nutrition and natural disasters. These conditions improve the likelihood of people developing disabilities in the first place, of which 50 percent are preventable.

Being disabled is an additional disadvantage for the impoverished, one that makes it even less likely for an individual or their family to rise out of poverty. When access to education for children with disabilities is low, these children are not able to learn the skills needed to work and earn money for themselves or their families. As a result, they tend to be dependents their entire lives, creating an additional economic burden for those who care for them.

In Bangladesh, husbands and wives in impoverished families often both need to work. With a disabled child, however, mothers are often prevented from working, eliminating that source of income. Additionally, medical care for the child is expensive and generally inaccessible to impoverished families in Bangladesh. While it is not the child’s fault that they are disabled, their disability can be difficult for impoverished families to bear and may make it impossible for them to break the poverty cycle.

Barriers to Education

As of 2010, there were approximately 1.6 million children with disabilities in Bangladesh, and fewer than 5,000 of them were enrolled in education programs designed for the disabled. Special education programs are not present in many Bangladesh schools. As a result, most educators are not trained to effectively work with children with disabilities.

Many schools deny admittance to children with disabilities, and those who do go to school often drop out within a short period of time. In addition to lack of adequate programming, the school buildings themselves are often inaccessible to those with disabilities. They lack elevators, automatic doors, handicapped toilet facilities and more.

Furthermore, the impoverished parents of children with disabilities in Bangladesh are often illiterate and do not have access to information about the rights of their child. They may not know that their child has a constitutional right to an education. Furthermore, even if they do know, they lack the funds needed to fight for their child.

Families and communities sometimes also lack information about what it means to be disabled, particularly if they are poor and illiterate. Children with disabilities are sometimes neglected and ignored and are often kept inside the home to prevent ridicule from the community. Abuse is also common, particularly for girls. Females are at an increased risk of physical and sexual abuse.

Improving Access to Education

The government is working to implement reforms that will increase education access to children with disabilities in Bangladesh. Many of these reforms include ensuring knowledge about the disabled is more widely disseminated. Community awareness programs are needed to teach people about disabilities, reduce stigma and generate more support for improving education for children with disabilities.

Additionally, knowledge of disabilities must be included in the basic training of teachers, and it can be reinforced or introduced to current teachers through in-service training. While it is also beneficial to have some teachers who can specialize in working with children with disabilities, all teachers need to be trained so that disabled children have a better chance of succeeding in any classroom.

Programs for Children with Disabilities

As of 2011, the government opened 13 primary schools specifically for people with disabilities. They are also implementing 64 integrated programs within high schools for the disabled. These efforts are undoubtedly making an impact, but many children with disabilities may not have access to these locations. There is a definite need to significantly expand these programs, creating more schools focused on disabilities around the country and ensuring all schools have programs for children with disabilities.

In the absence of widespread disability programming at public schools, BRAC has been working to expand education for children with disabilities in Bangladesh. More than 30,000 non-formal education centers have been established across the nation over the past two decades, and currently, 43,000 children are using these education centers. BRAC is committed to ensuring that the impoverished children and those in remote areas have access to schools.

Overall, efforts by the government and outside agencies, including BRAC, are an important step forward, but further growth and expansion are needed to ensure that all children with disabilities in the nation are able to access high-quality education. This will reduce the economic burden on their families and, hopefully, allow them to find work once they reach adulthood, helping them and their families escape poverty.

Sara Olk
Photo: Flickr