Unfortunately, disabled people are often most visible in Dhaka as beggars. Key intersections, religious festivals, shopping areas, outside fancy restaurants: all are places where you can find people asking for money. Helplessness and visible impairments are played up to.
A few months ago a young man knocks on the window of my car. One of his arms is shrivelled, the other appears fine. The shirt sleeve of his “bad” arm is rolled up, the other worn normally. I roll down the window – slightly, just in case – to tell him “you can work”.
My own work here is about disabled people getting access to employment: beggars using their impairments to get money is as much a practical challenge as an ideological one to what I am trying to achieve. “No one will give me a job,” he replies. I have to recognise his reply as true. The traffic moves and off I go to the office to write more reports about the benefits of employing disabled people.
A friend here has news of an association of beggars. Off we go down one of the broken roads in the outskirts of Dhaka. I greet the president of the association, Kalam – “I have no hands,” he says, unnecessarily. An unnecessary comment, and one that challenges my understanding of disability being present in social and environmental barriers rather than specific impairments. Returning to NGO-speak that I am more comfortable with, it turns out that they do not call themselves an association of beggars but rather something to do with development of disabled people.
The members introduce themselves. They are mostly men, mostly people with physical disabilities that you can see. Nobody says that they “beg” – they say they ask for “help”. The group is a mixture of people who have small shops, who sell chocolates or other things on the street, and who “ask for help”. Unlike other groups of disabled people I’ve met in Dhaka it’s clear that people here have incomes. Their struggles seem to be like those of people in work – where best to ply their trade, where to live, how to get enough to support their families.
One man angrily complains that after an injury working there was no way he could find work and so he was left with no choice but to beg. They have a small text on how they hate “begging” and wish they had work. This may be true, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. Anecdotally at least, beggars in Dhaka can earn 10,000-15,000 Tk ($125-$190) a month, which given a minimum wage for garments workers of 5,300 Tk means they are not among the poorest people in the city. Which is precisely the problem: they get more from begging than they could expect to get for low-skilled work, even if such low-skilled work was available for them.
The meeting is about whether they want to renew their organisation. Some of them speak to the benefits of being together, and how this will mean that they won’t get pushed around, and that they will have a broader financial back-up of the group to help with emergency expenses or opening small shops.
A program I saw a few years ago had successfully gotten some disabled people from begging into running their own businesses. It worked through appealing to the stigma that they currently face – “who will marry your daughter?” – as a motivation to do something new, even if it might be less well remunerated.
It’s certainly challenging to do a program like that, but it strikes me that there’s a bigger challenge here as well – to change the way we think about beggars on the street. Many people have reactions like the one I had to the person that knocked on my window: a person shouldn’t be begging if they can work. Other people see giving to disabled people as legitimate precisely because they can’t work. Both reactions miss the problems that the person might face beyond the physical one.
Not only do people who beg need valid alternatives, but they also deserve to be recognised – in their present situation – as more than the two extremes of “unable to work” and “too lazy to work”. As the group of people I met showed, there is no clear distinction between working and begging. Whether it’s selling chocolates on the street, or asking for “help”, the situation is more complex than it appears when someone knocks on the car window and puts forward an expression of hopelessness.