Long ignored by the field of disability studies, experiences of disability in the Global South generally, and Africa in particular, often map uncomfortably onto traditional disability theories. Burkina Faso, among the lowest income nations in the world (ranked 185 out of 188), is particularly well suited to a discussion of how disability discourses developed predominantly in the Global North operate or fail to operate outside their original contexts. Following the lived experiences and perspectives of disabled people themselves, Bezzina approaches the subject of disability among the Burkinabe through its relationship with development. The development framework offers a novel approach for disability scholars accustomed to advocacy for autonomy or independent living, focusing instead on the complex dependency relationships between Disabled People's Organizations (DPOs) and the International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) that fund them. Bezzina concentrates on how neoliberal economization produces disability stigma, ostracization, and poverty in Burkina Faso. The book is a welcome intervention that illuminates facets of the disability experience that have been predominantly ignored in traditional disability studies literature.

Bezzina brings a postcolonial approach that works to facilitate ways for the disabled subalterns to speak for themselves. The study is based on Participatory Action Research methodologies that foreground the views and perspectives of disabled subjects. Bezzina includes in these the novel technique of a Participatory Video, produced, starring, and edited by disabled Burkinabe, to tell their own stories and create their own counter-narratives. The diverse voices of actual disabled people in Burkina Faso express a range of experiences and reactions to disability throughout the nation and prevent the narrative from becoming monolithic. Bezzina considers disability broadly in this work, including a wide variety of disabilities instead of concentrating on any one category. Of particular note is the difficulty that Bezzina identifies in directly engaging with intellectually disabled people in Burkina Faso and in the Global South more generally. Since intellectually disabled people are more likely to be represented by family or teachers, Bezzina stresses the importance both of future research and of a consideration of caregivers and their relationship to people with intellectual disabilities.

The postcolonial lens that Bezzina brings to bear on Burkina Faso exposes a variety of limitations in the way that traditional disability studies scholars theorize disability. Bezzina argues that a traditionally structured society has a place for people with disabilities, but that the colonial introduction of concepts such as "normalcy" and market-based economies shift unproductive bodies to the periphery. In Burkina Faso, this results in a conception of disability that is based around productivity, with many people considering themselves as nondisabled when they can provide for themselves and disabled when they cannot, regardless of impairment status. Such formulations of disability cast doubt on the universalizability of Western disability studies theories, such as human rights and the social model of disability.

Human rights, though a common approach to disability in the Global South by both nations and INGOs, are difficult to achieve for disabled people in a nation like Burkina Faso with significant poverty and the lack of a welfare system. Bezzina argues that, in order for human rights to function, they need to be asserted and fought for. However, when disabled people struggle to fulfill basic needs, they have neither the capability to assert human rights nor often the accessibility to understand how they may affect their lives. Particularly in rural areas of Burkina Faso, where illiteracy is high and DPOs are less concentrated, the legal protections of human rights become comparatively irrelevant.

The social model of disability, at least in its classic form, appears to have even less validity in the context of Burkina Faso, where disabled people's self-perceptions are often based on medicalized definitions. Bezzina examines how, rather than resulting in shame or tragedy, a medicalized view of disability among the Burkinabe can result in behavior meant to overcome impairments and achieve agency. While such overcoming narratives may be viewed with skepticism by traditional disability scholars, in Burkina Faso, they are both a survival strategy and a means to combat negative stereotypes. Bezzina asserts that social model thinking needs a welfare system to justify it, and that without a welfare system in place, disabled people have to focus on survival to avoid being perceived as passive or helpless. In Burkina Faso, bodily impairments are more apparent due to a lack of medical equipment and treatments, and because of neoliberal economization, there is a heightened focus on individual autonomy instead of the collective power that the social model advocates for. Bezzina's touchstone for the social model is Tom Shakespeare's articulation from 1996, and while the critiques are certainly valid, it would be interesting for postcolonial methods to engage with more recent revisions, particularly those that place a greater focus on impairment.

Bezzina illuminates how INGOs, operating from a charity model and beholden primarily to their donors, create two-way dependency relationships with DPOs, which trap disabled people in activities designed to please their INGO funders rather than support themselves. For instance, many of the disabled Burkinabe interviewed by Bezzina would prefer to engage in income generating activities, but these are severely limited by INGO priorities. Bezzina expertly illustrates how INGOs create a neocolonial relationship with disabled people in Burkina Faso, dictating the kinds of activities they deem worthy of funding while limiting aid to a small number of established DPOs. INGOs tend to focus on temporary funding for easily quantifiable outcomes and thus are rarely attentive to the needs and desires of actual disabled people that they ostensibly exist to help.

Bezzina's work draws attention to an area of the world that has been all but ignored by traditional disability studies and draws a number of conclusions from her observations there that challenge conventional theorizing. This book should be of interest both to scholars concerned with disability in the Global South, as well as any disability scholar interested in novel critiques of established disability concepts. It is a strong contribution to the emerging subfield of postcolonial disability studies.

Work Cited

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2021 Nic Hamel

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)