A Landmark Day for Disability and Development


September 27, 2013
Steve Lewis, Health Advocacy Manager at RESULTS UK

This blog originally appeared here.

As I moved this morning from my hotel to the U.N. Plaza slightly late, I ran down some stairs in the hotel, more stairs into the subway, and pushed my way through the busy New York streets. Yet this is a first world city. How much greater are the barriers to participation in the towns and villages of the developing world. But New York is filled today with vocal and enthusiastic disability activists from hundreds of countries around the world, attending the U.N. High Level Meeting on Disability and Development.

More than 1 billion people or 15% of the world population live with disabilities — they constitute the world’s largest and most disadvantaged group. In all regions, persons with disabilities are disproportionately represented among the world’s poorest and lack equal access to basic rights, such as education and healthcare. In spite of this, disability has remained largely invisible in most mainstream development agendas, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Three of the issues that impact negatively on the lives of people with disabilities are lack of education, lack of employment, and lack of opportunities for participation in the community and in society.

Sixteen million disabled children around the world are denied the right to education. In the opening session a powerful speech was given by a young teenager, Phuong Ahn from Vietnam. “Many children around the world are unable to attend school,” she said. “This is a global shame and a global waste. Stigma within the education system is malevolent — it not only limits a child’s potential but society’s potential as well.”

Is it affordable to open up education to all people with disabilities? Mr Gopal Mitre is a blind activist from India, currently working with UNICEF. “It only costs 2 percent more to build a school that is accessible to all rather than the current schools with barriers to many. If we fail to invest in building accessible schools today, what kind of society will we have tomorrow? We can’t end stigma if we continue to form stigma in the classroom.”

As well as education, people with disabilities are often denied the right to employment; 80 percent of disabled people live in the Global South, and the great majority of adults would like to be able to earn an independent living. Micro-credit is an important tool that can create opportunities to live independent lives.

Pedro Montano at work Credit Steve LewisLast year I was in Nicaragua and visited two small cooperatives of disabled people. In Esteli, Pedro Montano told me of his struggle to get to any paid work in his wheelchair, given the lack of adequate public transport. “But now I work with other colleagues in the workshop, and we make clothes for sale in the market. Small loans from the credit union have allowed us to grow our business, and now we sell enough to buy new sewing machines.”

Miguel Loro works with two friends repairing shoes. “I was given a small loan and was able to buy some tools. Now I am proud that I am able to support my children through school.”

Disabled people, and the global community, achieved an important advance with the 2006 adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, to realize equality and participation for persons with disabilities in society and development, they must also be included in development processes and, in particular, in an emerging post-2015 development framework. This is the main subject of the discussions today.

RESULTS has long supported the rights of disabled people to play an integral role in development processes. We encouraged U.K. development minister Lynn Featherstone to attend today’s meeting, and I am pleased that she is here now. In common with disability organisations from around the world we are calling for the post-2015 development framework to have clear goals with full inclusion of people with disabilities. We call for each goal to have indicators of progress for disabled people and for each indicator to include disaggregated data on disability. On education, we need to be more ambitious than in the current set of MDGs. The world must aim for universal, free, quality early childhood, primary, and secondary education.

As Phuong Ahn said, “It is not so complicated…. We just want to be considered part of Us, not part of Them.”

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