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Student’s Research Spotlights an Overlooked Inequality: The Disability Gap

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Around the world, as countries grow more wealthy and advanced, what happens to those who face extra challenges with essential things like seeing, hearing, getting around, and interacting with others?

That’s the question recently addressed by a Fordham student’s faculty-mentored research project. While scholars have long suspected that people with disabilities tend to get left behind in schooling, in employment, and in other sectors of life, the research by Emily Lewis, FCRH ’22, found that there is even more of this inequality in richer countries. And it suggests that policies may be needed to ensure growth and development benefit all people in a society.

Disability “tends to be ignored when we speak about inequalities,” said economics professor Sophie Mitra, Ph.D., co-director of the disability studies minor and founding director of Fordham’s Research Consortium on Disability. “And yet, disability is key when it comes to understanding people’s livelihoods, people’s standard of living.”

Mitra was the mentor for Lewis, an economics and philosophy major who spent last summer analyzing international disability data with support from a summer research grant. Such funding for student-faculty research is a priority of the University’s current fundraising campaign, Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student.

Lewis, Mitra, and economics doctoral candidate Jaclyn Yap are co-authors of the resulting research paper, Do Disability Inequalities Grow with Development? Evidence from 40 Countries, published April 25 in the academic journal Sustainability. The research sprouted from another project led by Mitra that highlights disability inequalities worldwide.

The Disability Data Initiative

Since 2006, more than 180 countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an agreement to treat them not as objects of charity and medical treatment but rather as contributing members of society.

To support this goal and help policymakers move forward, Mitra spearheaded the Disability Data Initiative, a report on 180 nations’ census and survey findings regarding people with disabilities from 2009 to 2018. She led a team of graduate and undergraduate students, including Lewis.

Presented at a UN conference last June, the report showed that about one-quarter of nations didn’t ask about disability in their national surveys. In those that did, the data showed major gaps in the areas of education, health, employment, and standard of living between people with disabilities and those without them.

The database opened the possibility of doing an extensive study across countries to see if these gaps increased with development—something that had been long hypothesized but not tested on a large scale.

Eager to explore this question, Lewis made it her summer project. Her interest in the disability gap had been sparked during one of Mitra’s classes, at a time when she was looking for a way to get involved in undergraduate research.

“Seeing examples of how different researchers are approaching these questions was really interesting, and got me excited about how I could design this project for myself,” she said.

It was a big project—and a summer research grant gave her the means to spend the required time on it.

Help from a Fordham Benefactor

This and other grants to students were made possible by an alumni benefactor who has long funded undergraduate research—Boniface “Buzz” Zaino, FCRH ’65, whose long career in the investment world exposed him to the joys of researching and learning about new industries. “Once I got into it, it just opened the world, because you do get to explore and focus on areas that become very interesting,” he said.

He has funded students’ research for years, energized by the students’ enthusiasm for their projects, by what their projects have taught him about the world, and by the benefits to the student researchers themselves.

The research process, with its wide reading and focused inquiries, gives students a base for developing their interests and learning about new things over the long term, he said. “The University provides a student with the opportunity to develop a research process, and that’s got to be very helpful for them going forward, no matter what they do in life,” he said.

The Disability and Development Gap

Lewis met weekly with Mitra over the summer to design and carry out the project, examining 40 countries that have comparable data on peoples’ self-reported difficulties with seeing, hearing, walking, cognition, self-care, and communication.

Working on the Disability Data Initiative, they had already gotten glimpses of a wider disability gap in wealthier countries.

For instance, in low-income nation of Cambodia, 75% of adults with any kind of difficulty caused by disability were employed, just shy of the 79% for those without disability. But in economically booming Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, the gulf is far wider, with just 15% employment for those with any difficulty, compared to 56% for those without.

To see if such disparities represented a trend, Lewis crunched a big data set including lots of variables—levels of disability, gender, age, and urban versus rural location, as well as a nation’s place on Human Development Index, or HDI, a UN indicator of nations’ wealth and overall development.

She found that for many standard-of-living indicators, like adequate housing and access to electricity, there was little difference in the disability gap between richer and poorer countries.

But the story was different in three areas: education levels, employment rate, and a multidimensional measure of poverty. Gaps in all three increased as countries’ HDI increased. The results held up when Lewis looked at the data a few different ways, such as focusing on different development measures or population subgroups.

The results, the co-authors wrote, “suggest that as a country develops, policies, specifically in relation to education and employment, need to be implemented to narrow and, eventually, close the gaps between persons with and without disabilities.”

The research shows that while disparities may be greater in wealthier nations, disability inequalities aren’t just a problem in rich countries with older populations, Mitra said. Low-income countries have them too, even if they’re less pronounced.

“Even when almost everyone is poor, well, people with disabilities seem to be even poorer,” she said.

Lewis found it exciting to be involved in the research process and see it through from start to finish—figuring out the approach, changing direction as needed, and working independently. “[It’s] something I consider myself really lucky to have been involved in,” said Lewis, who was planning to work as a project assistant at a New York law firm after graduation to explore her interest in law school.

Mitra said that undergraduate research not only teaches students valuable skills but also gives them an inside look at how knowledge is produced, as well as all the caveats and limitations that come with it—an awareness that will serve them well in whatever field they pursue.

The University’s research grant program for undergraduates is “a unique opportunity for students, but also for as faculty,” Mitra said. “So I hope it does continue to attract the generosity of donors.”

To inquire about giving in support of student-faculty research or another area of the University, please contact Michael Boyd, senior associate vice president for development and university relations, at 212-636-6525 or mboyd7@fordham.eduLearn more about Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, our campaign to reinvest in every aspect of the Fordham student experience.

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