Health, Lifestyle

What if Stephen Hawking had been born in Africa?

The World Health Organisation reports that there are over one billion disabled people in the world.  Many of these individuals are discriminated against and marginalised by society.


Ramón Alabau


He is one of most important scientists of our time. A renowned physicist, educator and cosmologist whose contributions to society have earned him the title of “genius”.

Despite his many achievements, Stephen Hawking’s life has been marked by disability.  During his youth he faced a great setback when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and doctors gave him only two years to live.  His current age is proof in itself that he overcame this prognosis.

His quote, “When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have”, is the best way to sum up his strength as a human being.

He is now 70-years-old and suffers from a degenerative illness that affects his muscles, causing him to experience mobility problems and requiring him to use a specially adapted wheelchair.  In order to overcome his speech difficulties he uses a computer system which enables him to talk, and has meant that he has never stopped answering scientific questions.  Not everyone is as lucky.

This British scientist explains that “most disabled people face enormous difficulties just getting through each day without even taking into account finding a rewarding job or realising their full potential”.

According to the WHO and the World Bank Group, along with Hawking there are “over one billion people living with some form of disability” in the world today.

Hearing or speech difficulties and mobility problems, to name but a few, act as a barrier to integration and lead to many people being marginalised or finding themselves living in poverty.

Liliana Pantano, who has a PhD in Sociology, states that those who suffer from a disability are limited in their development, not only because of their condition but also to a large extent because of their “environment”.  “A person’s degree of disability is greatly influenced by the obstacles they face and the support they receive”, she says.

The figures

According to the latest studies by WHO, 15% of the world’s population has a disability.

Included in this figure are 95 million children (aged between 0 and 14-years-old) who suffer physical or mental health problems, the prognosis of 13 million of these children is considered as “severe”, in other words blindness or tetraplegia.

These figures are based on a study carried out by WHO Global Burden of Disease.

Depending on the socio-economic conditions of their country, people with disabilities face difficulties regarding access to basic services such as health or education.

The WHO highlights that, due to the discrimination and marginalisation they suffer from government institutions and society in general, these individuals have “poorer levels of health and education, less economic power and higher rates of poverty”.

At present there are several different integration projects in practice.

Saidi Ramadha, a young disabled woman from Tanzania, found help through an educational workshop organised by Manos Unidas.  She now has a future and skills to offer to society.

“After becoming disabled I saw that my life had no meaning within my community or amongst other people of my own age, even those who used to be my friends.  When I started school I began to feel part of the community again”, explains Ramadha.

Healing through education

UNESCO supports the proposal to put an end to the current model prevailing in most societies, where disabled people are educated in separate facilities.

In Finland it has been proven that the academic success of bright children is not compromised by learning in a classroom alongside children with disabilities and that the latter actually even improve their performance.

According to UNESCO there are currently “75 million children of school age who do not attend school with disabled children accounting for one third of this figure”, and Kenneth Eklindh, UNESCO Senior Programme Specialist working in the field of Inclusive Education, believes that “education can play a key role in overcoming exclusion of the disabled”.

He adds that “just a few years ago, the education of children suffering from severe learning disabilities such as Down Syndrome, was not even dealt with under the Ministry of Education as this was considered to be the responsibility of public health services”.  According to different statements collected by the media, “there was no real belief that these children needed an education”.

“The ‘worst’ disability is to be mentally handicapped because taboos still keep these people hidden. Considering the percentage of people living with disabilities, even in a modern city like Paris it is rare to see anyone on the streets with a disability and those with an intellectual disability are even rarer”, consequently he believes that a change in “curriculum, assessment techniques and teaching methods” is necessary.

A belief that would change the method used by a small school in Tetuán, where the NGO, Disabled Children, works with underprivileged children affected by marginalisation and a lack of social awareness.  In this school 750 students learn woodwork, painting, and skills working with precious metals in addition to completing a series of exercises to increase awareness in order to facilitate the social and family integration of these youths.  Despite their achievements, the centre is thought to “isolate these youths and due to international intervention it will be forced to change its methodology”, writes José Fernández Cervera, member of Manos Unidas who has visited the area.

Disability and poverty

Disability is sometimes associated with issues related to Human Rights violations and vulnerability.

The WHO Global Health Survey highlights that “children from the poorest families and who are part of ethnic minorities are at a significantly higher risk of suffering from some type of disability”.

The Global Health Survey states that “disabilities are more common in low-income countries than in countries with higher incomes”.

Being female, of old age or a child, together with low economic power, increases the risk even further.


Emancipating and eliminating the daily obstacles faced by the disabled are the two main objectives of the UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015.  These proposals aim to promote integration in order to achieve equality for all human beings in 21st century society.

In order to achieve this, a series of innovative proposals and programmes have been put forward aimed at achieving one of United Nations priorities regarding “human and development rights”.

Included in the recommendations are plans to facilitate access to basic services such as education, health and information, promote social awareness and improve rehabilitation programmes which intend to guarantee rights for everyone.

Future of the disabled

Environmental factors, wars, dietary habits and natural disasters are all related to the more common disabilities characteristic of certain areas or regions.

The main programmes put in place by different international and national organisations are aimed not only at providing a solution to the current integration problem but also to any future problems.   WHO warns that “the number of people suffering from a disability is on the increase” due to an ageing population and an increase in the number of chronic illnesses.

“Diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and mental health disorders”, among others, are and will be the root cause of a future society where disability is more prevalent.

The WHO explains, “disability is part of the human condition”, and sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent, most people will suffer some form of disability.

(Translated by Rebecca Hayhurst. E-mail:

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