Published in November 2023
Social protection for people with disabilities: Cash benefits are not enough
Only one third of persons with severe disability around the world receives a disability-related benefit. Often the design of these benefits is not aligned with international standards.
Social protection policies in many countries perpetuate the misconception that disability is associated with “incapacity to work” and “poverty”. The emphasis is on the need to “compensate” for an assumed lack of ability to work.
The truth is that people with disabilities could be effectively included in societies if they were supported by well-designed social protection systems that empower them and promote their participation in all areas of social life.
Explore this InfoStory to learn how countries can take action to create more inclusive social protection policies that work towards the full and effective participation of people with disability.
This InfoStory draws on materials created by the Center for Inclusive Policy in the context of a project financed by the UN Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Protection of persons with disabilities around the world
Globally, only 33.5% of persons with severe disabilities receive cash benefits, but this number varies widely according to regions and countries.
Coverage in Central Asia is above 80% and in Europe it is quasi-universal. However, in Africa and the Arab States it is below 10%.
While universal provision for people with disabilities is more common in higher-income countries, it has also been achieved in Brazil or Mongolia.
Why persons with disabilities often start from an unequal position
Imagine that, to achieve a similar standard of living and level of participation in society as others, you and your family had to spend more money throughout your lives. This is what you face if you live with a disability.
Such extra expenses can include the cost of private transport if public transport is not accessible, higher costs for food if a specific diet is necessary, or the costs of a wheel chair or a hearing aid.
At the same time, you earn less due to barriers to education and job markets. Your family members might have to stop working to provide support, which decreases household income.
These expenses and lower earnings are called disability extra costs.
In fact, as a person with disabilities, you face much higher costs of living, which puts you in an unequal and unfair position vis-à-vis persons without disabilities.
Well-designed social protection schemes can help address many of those extra costs and support inclusion of persons with disabilities. Sadly, few countries provide such support, and when they do, the benefits are often too low, and they do not consider the diversity of disability costs.
What is more, existing social protection schemes are often limited to the people who are considered in poverty. They exclude many persons with disabilities who are not eligible, but still cannot afford the support they need.
Social protection can break down these inequalities
Social protection systems can tackle this problem by comprehensively covering the extra costs that arise from a disability. The goal should be to make mainstream services and benefits accessible to all, as well as developing disability-specific schemes.
Cash alone is not sufficient. Like everyone else, people with disabilities have different needs at various stages of life. These changing needs must be met by different services and institutions.
To give three examples, social protection systems can play a key role in facilitating access to early childhood education and schools, to rehabilitation and to economic empowerment programs such as job coaching and counselling.
Access to social protection must be easy for all
Even when social protection systems are inclusive on paper, they may not be so in practice if they are not easily accessible for people with disabilities across every step of the delivery chain.
Am I eligible? Under which conditions? How do I apply? What documents do I need? How can I receive the benefit?
These questions are often not easy for people with disabilities to answer, and in the process other barriers surface. As persons with disabilities are a diverse group, they face different barriers related to the built environment, transport, information and communication.
Those who are working also require social protection
When people with disabilities are employed, the disability extra costs they face can become even higher given specific needs they may have for commuting, performing their work, and so forth. For the effective inclusion of working-age populations, it is crucial to design social protection benefits in ways that make them compatible with work.
Nonetheless, most social protection schemes still require proof of at least partial incapacity to work from persons with disabilities as a precondition to qualify for a benefit. In practice, this can compel persons with disabilities to choose between either receiving disability support benefits or entering the labour market and having to assume all the costs themselves.
Segregating people with disabilities into those who are “able” or “unable” to work, and making disability benefits conditional upon the incapacity to work, locks them in a vicious cycle of dependency and exclusion, thereby perpetuating existing stereotypes and prejudices.
Nothing about us without us
Persons with disabilities and the organizations that represent them are often consulted in policy discussions, but they tend to be excluded from other key processes such as implementation, monitoring and reform of social protection policies and programmes.
People with disabilities should not be just a box to tick at the consultation phase. If we want truly inclusive social protection schemes, people with disabilities must have an active role in all phases of the policy cycle.
Find out more about disability inclusion through social protection.