Article Information

Judith McKenzie1,2
Gubela Mji1
Siphokazi Gcaza1

1Centre for Rehabilitation Studies, Stellenbosch University, South Africa

2Disability Studies Programme, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Correspondence to:
Judith McKenzie

Postal address:
F45 Old Main Building, Groote Schuur Hospital, Observatory 7925, South Africa

Received: 18 July 2013
Accepted: 10 Oct. 2013
Published: 04 June 2014

How to cite this article:
McKenzie, J., Mji, G. & Gcaza, S., 2014, ‘With or without us? An audit of disability research in the southern African region’, African Journal of Disability 3(2), Art. #76, 6 pages.

Copyright Notice:
© 2014. The Authors. Licensee: AOSIS OpenJournals.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
With or without us? An audit of disability research in the southern African region
In This Original Research...
Open Access
Emancipatory research
   • Social model of disability
   • The engagement of people with disabilities
   • Transformative aim
Research method
   • Data collection
   • Data analysis
   • Definitions or models of disability
   • Involvement of people with disabilities
   • Promotion of human rights
   • Challenges of using research evidence to action
   • Suggestions for using research evidence
   • Policy development
   • Competing interests
   • Authors' contributions

Background: Disability research in the global South has not received significant critical consideration as to how it can be used to challenge the oppression and marginalisation of people with disabilities in low-income and middle-income countries. The Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD) embarked on a programme to use research to influence policy and practice relating to people with disabilities in Southern Africa, and commissioned an audit on research expertise in the region. In this article, a research audit is reported on and situated in a framework of emancipatory research.

Objectives: This article sets out to describe a preliminary audit of disability research in the southern African region and to draw conclusions about the current state of disability research in the region and make recommendations.

Method: The research method entailed working with disability researchers in the ten SAFOD member countries and utilising African disability networks hosted on electronic media. Disability researchers working in the region completed 87 questionnaires, which were reviewed through a thematic analysis.

Results: The discussion of results provides a consideration of definitions of disability; the understanding of disability rights, research topics and methodologies; the participation of people with disabilities in research; and the challenges and opportunities for using research to inform disability activism.

Conclusion: The conclusion highlights critical issues for future research in the region, and considers how a disability researcher database can be used as a tool for disability organisations to prioritise research that serves a disability rights agenda.


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which has now been entered into international law, is a significant step towards realising the rights of people with disabilities (United Nations [UN] 2006). The Convention seeks to address discrimination, change perceptions and combat stereotypes and prejudices. It also places an obligation on governments to ensure that they assist people with disabilities to achieve a state of equality with the citizenry without disabilities of each of their countries. Article 31 of the Convention notes the importance of states gathering research data that can inform policy and monitor progress towards the realisation of the rights of people with disabilities. People with disabilities need to be able to monitor and evaluate the impact of UNCRPD on their lives, and involvement in research will give them the impetus to do so.

This article reports on a research audit commissioned by the Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD), an umbrella human rights organisation for people with disabilities, for the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies (CRS) at the University of Stellenbosch to conduct. We begin with an analysis of the emancipatory research perspective of SAFOD, before presenting the study and our conclusion and recommendations.

Emancipatory research

In 2006 SAFOD initiated the SAFOD Research Programme (SRP) with the following aims:

• to engage in partnerships with researchers in community-based and academic research in a spirit of co-operation and trust
• to develop the capacity of people with disabilities as research partners
• to use research to develop effective pro-poor policy and practice affecting people with disabilities in the region.

The SRP is concerned with the relationship between people with disabilities and researchers, with the aim that people with disabilities become partners in research that has a practical application in their lives. For this reason, the research audit was conducted within the framework of an emancipatory paradigm. Emancipatory research (1) is based on a social model of disability, (2) engages people with disabilities in all stages of the process, and (3) has a transformative aim (Barnes 2008). Each of these issues will be discussed below with regard to the disability research audit.

Social model of disability
The World report on disability (World Health Organization [WHO] 2011) outlines the development of a social model of disability, largely through the efforts of people with disabilities themselves, in reaction to the medicalisation of disability by health professionals. Different ‘models’ of disability have been positioned as being dichotomous, thereby stifling dialogue about the relative impact of impairment and environment (Grue 2011). The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) is presented in the World report on disability as a framework that can begin to bridge this gap, recognising both the nature of impairment and the importance of environmental factors. The environmental factors within the life-situation of a person with an impairment may either pose barriers or be a facilitator to participation (WHO 2002). Within the UNCRPD, such barriers are seen as a form of social injustice that states have an obligation to address (UN 2006). For Barnes (2008), an emancipatory research approach must at least include a focus on environmental barriers, and must prioritise the knowledge and experience of people with disabilities.

The engagement of people with disabilities
The involvement of people with disabilities in disability research can be seen as existing along a continuum, ranging from weak to strong engagement. At the weak end of the scale, involvement would be in the form of researchers engaging with people with disabilities merely as subjects of research or perhaps for consultation at an advanced stage of research. At the strong end of the scale, disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) would be involved in setting the research agenda as well as in conducting, commissioning and disseminating the research. This was found to be true in a specific European context; amongst people with disabilities there was ‘in particular, a desire to be involved in shaping research agendas and defining research questions whilst valuing the methodological expertise and credibility of academic researchers’ (Priestley, Waddington & Bessozi 2010:741). The ownership of research is a contested area. DPOs have often complained that academic researchers use the products of their research for career advancement rather than for the emancipation of people with disabilities (Garbutt & Seymour 1998).

Transformative aim
Carmichael (2004) points out that research is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Research must be communicated in such a way that it provides evidence to action, as opposed to being relegated to a dusty shelf. Chalklen, Seutloadi and Sadek (2009) found that in the southern African context, disability research is not sufficiently solution focused and does not provide material for advocacy because it is pitched at a too generic level. According to these authors, statistics are not disaggregated in such a way as to make them usable for disability activists. These criticisms must be addressed if researchers are to contribute to the empowerment of people with disabilities in the manner envisaged in Article 31 of the UNCRPD.

It is within this framework that the African Network for Evidence to Action in Disability (AfriNEAD) has been developed. This network seeks to bridge the gap across a broad range of issues relevant to realising the rights of people with disabilities (Mji et al. 2009). One of the key reasons for the development of AfriNEAD was to investigate the quality and the suitability of existing disability research. According to AfriNEAD, the challenge is clear: it is not just more research that is needed; it is ‘improved’ research and research that can be translated into policy and practice. Translating research into evidence-based advocacy, policy, practice and products – particularly in the pan-African context – needs to be systematically addressed in a co-ordinated, coherent and consistent fashion. It is only when this happens that research evidence can act as a springboard for human rights instruments such as the UNCRPD (Mji et al. 2009).

Research method

Data collection
A questionnaire, summarised in Table 1, was developed within the framework of an emancipatory research paradigm.

TABLE 1: Summary of questionnaire.

Initially, the questionnaire was sent electronically to a group of researchers in the region who were well-known to SAFOD, and who had participated or advised in the development of the SRP. In addition, we engaged with a research capacity-building programme run by the Department of Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch and SAFOD. The programme was run over two years on a block-release system with the aim of:

… build[ing] the institutional capacity of the organisation (SAFOD) to design, drive and deliver their own research and development programme, focusing on disability issues with an inclusive poverty, emancipation, social exclusion and human rights focus. (University of Stellenbosch 2007)

Trainees were people with disabilities recruited by DPOs in the SAFOD member countries. SRP trainees gave their inputs to the questionnaire’s development and agreed to approach at least five researchers in their own countries to complete the questionnaire; they were paid for their work. They administered questionnaires electronically or in face-to-face interviews, depending on the availability of the respondents. All respondents provided contact details of other suitable respondents to create a snowball sampling effect. Whilst some of these researchers were connected to SAFOD, others were not. The respondents gave informed consent to their participation in the research audit. This process yielded a total of 87 questionnaires.

Data analysis
A database was created to store researchers’ names, contact information, research methodologies and the topics of their research. Data obtained from the questionnaire was grouped into response categories derived from the emancipatory paradigm (understanding of disability, engagement with people with disabilities and transformative aim). Each researcher analysed a response category and then validated their findings with the other two researchers.

The response categories were analysed as follows:

• Identifying critical or emerging themes in each category.
• Grouping together statements that supported the identified theme.
• Identifying the frequency of statements in each theme (counting the number of responses and converting it into percentages). The rationale for identifying the frequency of statements was to indicate the dominant trends within this very specific sample of respondents. Whilst we make no claim as to the generalisability of these trends, we find it worthwhile commenting on their occurrence and considering future directions in the light of these findings.


The researchers came from throughout the region; the highest number came from South Africa, followed by Zimbabwe and Botswana, and the lowest number came from Angola and Namibia (see Table 2).

TABLE 2: Country of residence of researchers.

Most researchers (46%) were employed by universities or colleges (though not necessarily full-time). Government was the next most common employer (14%), followed by non-governmental organisations (11%), and DPOs and private consultancies (10% each). The remaining 9% were based in national research institutes.

Definitions or models of disability
Evidence from respondents (as illustrated in Table 3) indicates that the definition of ‘disability’ is still a contested and complex issue. Respondents had different understandings and orientations, at times moving between definitions.

TABLE 3: Definitions of disability.

The medical model was the most common definition used by researchers, but only marginally more common than the social model. Many researchers adopted the ICF definition, which incorporates elements of the medical and social models: ‘This is a complex question and I can’t answer it generically, but let’s say social model and ICF’ (Respondent 5, male, academic).

Involvement of people with disabilities
The majority of respondents involved people with disabilities in some aspect of the research process, albeit at different levels and in varying roles and capacities (see Table 4).

TABLE 4: Involvement of people with disabilities in research.

Promotion of human rights
There is a strong indication that researchers are attempting to promote the human rights of people with disabilities, as indicated in Table 5.

TABLE 5: The understanding of human rights.

Challenges of using research evidence to action
Most respondents reported that there is limited capacity (both human and financial) for service providers to conduct research (see Table 6).

TABLE 6: Challenges of using research evidence to action.

Suggestions for using research evidence
Some respondents felt that there should be a clear definition and delineation of roles between researchers and activists. In this regard, researchers have as their main objective the generation of new knowledge, whilst DPOs are advocates for their constituencies (see Table 7).

TABLE 7: Suggestions for using research evidence.

Policy development
Respondents saw a strong connection between evidence to action and influencing government policy (see Table 8).

TABLE 8: Respondents involved in government policy development.


It appears that an interactional, human rights understanding of disability is gaining wider acceptance in the region. The UNCRPD and the ICF are the most prominent instruments underpinning disability research. Although there are important differences between these two approaches that will not be discussed here, both are shifting the focus of research to a greater exploration of the environment in which disability occurs or is created. A more impairment-oriented, medical approach to disability is evident in countries that do not have access to the wide range of literature available in the English language (e.g. Mozambique and Angola).

There was a call, specifically regarding the ICF, to adopt a working definition of disability, so as to enable researchers to design studies that are comparable internationally; and in so doing, describe and monitor the implementation of the UNCRPD. However, other researchers draw more directly on a framework of social justice and equalisation of opportunity. In addition, some researchers make a plea for recognising indigenous knowledge and African perspectives in disability research. It appears that it would be premature to end the debate at this point.

Amongst respondents there was a strong recognition of the need to involve people with disabilities at all levels of the research process. Some were concerned about the call for full participation of people with disabilities in research without stipulating their role in research. In the African context, not all people with disabilities have had formal education, and are at a disadvantage with regard to technical research skills. Whilst the development of these skills might take place for those people with disabilities expressly interested in their development, it was proposed that the aim for the disability movement overall should be to increase the capacity of people with disabilities to engage with researchers, to utilise research and to ask the right questions. Furthermore, a deeper knowledge of the African context and indigenous knowledge systems could be integrated into the research process (Owusu-Ansah & Mji 2013).

An evidence to action approach is required to ensure that research benefits and makes a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. Dissemination of research findings must be targeted to reach the intended people, building knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities (Barnes 2008; UN 2006). Where there was limited disability research capacity (e.g. in Namibia) it was noted that there was research in existence that could be relevant to supporting equal opportunities for people with disabilities, if the data were disaggregated for disability. Thus, disability research should be undertaken with appropriate strategies and funding for dissemination and advocacy from the start, rather than seeing these as add-on, optional activities to be performed at the end of the research project.

The process of translation of research evidence raises questions regarding the origin of research questions. Lately, disability research participants have become interested in knowing from researchers how their research outcomes will be used to address the needs and priorities of people with disabilities. Though a daunting prospect, this opens a new and exciting space for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the critical planning of research for better accountability and impact (Priestley et al. 2010).

At the core of these arguments is the need for equalisation of opportunities for people with disabilities. We believe that the discourse regarding research evidence should not be a fixed entity, but rather a fluid construct that is subject to the context and changing theoretical and socio-political understandings of disability in that area (Owusu-Ansah & Mji 2013). We contend that it is not the methodology that is used that determines the effectiveness of research in transforming the lives of people with disabilities; rather, it is the consciousness of the central place of the struggles of people with disabilities and their families to realise the rights that have been outlined in the UNCRPD.


Competing interests
The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationship(s) that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions
All authors, J.M. (University of Cape Town), G.M. (University of Stellenbosch) and S.G. (University of Stellenbosch), were involved in the conceptualisation, instrumentation and implementation of the research. Data analysis and writing up of the research was also shared equally.


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