The losers in the Swedish welfare state – Africans with disabilities

Disabled person in a wheelchair
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The exclusion of Africans from the labour market is even worse, if they are vulnerable to more aspects of discrimination a Swedish study finds

by Kitimbwa Sabuni

Racial discrimination is one of the most important reason why so many immigrants after several years in Europe continue to live in socially marginalised conditions. This is also the case in Sweden where one is quite familiar with the mechanisms behind discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, religion, social orientation etc. The question is what happens if a group in society is vulnerable to more than one aspect of discrimination? In what ways does the oppression manifest itself against people who can be discriminated on the grounds of their ethnicity and one or several disabilities? The African Swedish National Association conducted a study in 2005 which targeted people of African descent with disabilities. As far as we saw, there had been no prior attempt to conduct an intersectional study which targets this specific group.

The study presented seven persons from different African countries living in Sweden. Guled 28 years, David 46, years, Ahmed 48, Asli 63, Adamu 17, Mohamed 36 and Mariam 33. They were disabled with regards to their mobility and hearing; one person was autistic and the last participant to join the study was a woman suffering from mental illness. Most of them were not born with their disabilities but had obtained them as a result of injuries sustained during armed conflicts. We identified nine different themes that were reappearing in their accounts and we chose to call them critical factors. We argue that it is these nine critical factors that are decisive for a successful integration of Africans with disabilities in the Swedish society.

The disability

The Informants most urgent problem were their disabilities and their emotional state. Many of them argued that they felt more disabled in Sweden than in their native countries where they lived in small rural societies close to their families and were productive and respected members of the community. In Sweden on the other hand, they were confined in apartment buildings without elevators and physically isolated from others since they could not move or enter buildings that are not adapted to the disabled. Their social lives were very limited since they had no families and in the cases where they had families most of the family members were busy during the day. The result was that most of the informants led very lonely lives.


Migration can occur in two different ways, through flight or by voluntary resettlement. In contrast to flight, voluntary resettlement is generally well planned which makes it possible for the migrant to plan ahead and compensate for his disability. In the case of flight, people with disabilities have a disadvantageous starting point and we therefore call attention to the fact that most of the disabled Africans who have migrated to Sweden arrived as refugees with no plan what so ever regarding how they should live their lives as disabled persons in Sweden.

The encounter with Swedish welfare society

In Sweden where the handicap movement is strong, possibilities of obtaining assistance and financial support from the government is generally good. However, it is an unwritten law that the person himself should solicit the help he or she needs. That is not always an easy task for a refugee who might have more urgent concerns in his life than to learn how to master filling out forms and interact with government officials. In Sweden, doctors for instance, like to ask their patients questions while some Africans are used to doctors that flat out tells them what the problem is without consulting them all that much. This method tends to work for Africans while the Swedish approach could be perceived as offensive. Guled says he no longer visits Swedish doctors. “Don’t they understand that is painful to discuss ones disabilities and shortcomings over and over again?”


The major part of racial discrimination is upheld by established procedures within the welfare society that aims at minimizing social expenditure and services. Thus, a type of indirect discrimination is at work against the clients who are not capable and strong enough to assert their rights. That is the case for many Africans with disabilities who have little knowledge of the workings of the Swedish welfare state. There is also a myth in Sweden about “Social Africa”. According to this popular notion, Swedes only have the cellular family to turn to in times of need while Africans can rely on their entire clan or community. When government officials take these prejudices into consideration before determining what kind of services to grant, obviously that can have a disadvantageous effect for African clients.

The mental state

Feelings of distress and trauma from the native country paired with the long and uncertain suspense before being granted asylum is highly damaging to the mental state of Swedish Africans with disabilities. The new society with its unfamiliar culture can be hard to decode and the solitude within the studied group only helps to reinforce their feelings of disorientation and occlusion. It is not surprising that the mental state of Africans with disabilities is often negative. Asli and Mariam both had medical opinions that proved their poor mental state, furthermore Guled and Mohamed also stated that their mental condition was negative. Studies show that Africans in Sweden generally are in poorer mental state than ethnical Swedes.


As a disabled person with African descent, finding a job in Sweden is very difficult and since most of our informants have never entered the labour market or the social security system, they were predestined to live out of the welfare system. To only call them low income earners would be insufficient given the miserable situation they were in. Mohamed was granted 200 euro a month from the social services which should cover his rent at 110 euro per month for a room he shared with three other people. A social welfare secretary told him that he should turn to his family for help. The only problem was that he had left his family in Somalia and that they were dependant on him. The small resources that Africans with disabilities generally possess in Sweden restrict their options and make their integration process more problematical.


It is sometimes asserted that there are elements in African culture that renders life more difficult for people with disabilities. For instance some say that Africans tend to be ashamed of disabilities and hide away their disabled family members, making it more difficult for them to evolve as persons and become self reliant. Our study gives no decisive indications of this being truth. We concluded that there are over protective and sometimes condescending attitudes towards disabled people among Africans but it was David’s experience that he was regarded as a functional human being in Somalia. We should not forget that Africa consists of 52 different countries and if there are common patterns that is probably not due to culture but rather to poor living conditions, which is something most African countries have in common. Where misery and poverty prevails, it is harder to treat all groups in society with dignity and respect.


Typically, the female perspective is under represented in our study as well, but the two women who participated stated that they are highly isolated. By tradition the man is the head of the household who represents the family outwards in many African societies. It can therefore be more difficult for African women to step forward and demand their rights. Within these societies the man has the broader social network, while women’s network is restricted to the immediate family and relatives. In Sweden unfortunately African women often lack these social structures and have no one to turn to for help. In a marriage it is generally easier if it is the husband who suffers from a disability since women are expected to take care of their men. A Swedish social welfare secretary stated that African women sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of their disabled husbands while men in the same situation generally demand help from society.


The study clearly showed that the person’s network is a decisive success factor for Africans with disabilities. The ones among our informants who had established relations with ethnical Swedes had dealt more successfully with the Swedish welfare system. Probably thanks to a little help from their friends. Unfortunately disabled Africans are fairly isolated. Not only do their disabilities exclude them from society as a whole but also from the African communities. We have also found that African organisations as well as the handicap movement have failed to include disabled Africans in their organisational activities.


The same mechanisms that are described under the heading Discrimination are at work within all the factors. Firstly migration – which for most Africans implies flight and long suspense – in itself is a process where you are excluded from society. They are excluded from the labour market and from all forms of rehabilitation until they have been granted asylum which can take several years. Furthermore the encounter with the Swedish welfare system is characterized by an institutional discrimination where the government officials assume – against their own better judgement – that disabled Africans are well orientated in the Swedish welfare system and refrains from giving them crucial information so that they can claim their rights. Due to that disabled Africans receive less medical care, rehabilitation and assistance, which decrease the municipalities’ expenses but further complicate disabled Africans integration process. The study also showed how Africans with disabilities systematically are excluded from important networks such as African and handicap organisations. To be African, disabled and female proved to be grounds for triple discrimination.

The academic world also participates in the structural discrimination of disabled Africans. By using stereotypical reasoning about cultural differences the scholars legitimise social and economical inequities. They deny societies responsibility and shifts the blame on the individual.

But if more people were to get involved in this issue a change will surely come. As responsible citizens we should ask ourselves what kind of societies we would like to live in. If truly we adhere to democracy and the principle of equal rights and opportunities for everyone then we should contribute to form such a society. Otherwise not only are the rights of the disabled Africans at jeopardy, but, mines, indeed everyone’s rights are at stake.

One of the NGO’s reasons for being is to watch over the state on the people’s behalf so that human rights do not only become dusty documents in New York and Geneva but codes that govern the way governments conduct their practices. More specifically we think that African organisations especially have a role in promoting the rights of disabled Africans since our reason for being is helping and supporting people of African descent. If well organized networks is what it takes to help disabled Africans further in European societies then let the African NGO’s provide them with such networks.


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Kitimbwa Sabuni is the Secretary General of the African Swedish National Association (ASR). The organisations aim is to promote the interests and the wellbeing of Africans living in Sweden.