One undeniable trend in the development sector over the last few years has been people talking more about disability. From the WHO/World Bank World Report on Disability in 2011, through DFID’s first Disability Framework in 2014, to the UN’s adoption of disability within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015; disability appears to have captured the development community’s imagination.
Continuing the trend, the International Centre for Evidence in Disabilities’ (ICED) third international symposium earlier this year – Disability in the SDGs: Forming Alliances and Building Evidence for the 2030 Agenda – had a record turnout. More than 300 people attended from around the world, and from the disability community, official development agencies, NGOs and academia. The symposium generated 67 recommendations for its call to action, many linked to the SDGs. Clearly, there is much to do.
Many of the recommendations are clear and specific. Examples include: more data disaggregated by disability – something Sightsavers is currently focusing on; work with mainstream development actors to ensure their programmes are inclusive – for example, DFID is pushing all international civil society organisations (ICSOs) it funds centrally to show how they include people with disabilities; ensure the disability movement feeds into national poverty strategies and SDG plans; and so on. You can read them all here.
An optimist might conclude that the time has come for disability to be recognised as an issue and for the estimated one billion people with disabilities worldwide; that we can now expect to see consistent positive progress in the status and inclusion of people with disabilities.
But we’ve been here before.
In fact it’s shocking to think how far we might have come by now. People cite the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, China) as a turning point for gender equality in international relations, with a declaration and platform for action agreed by 189 countries. Twenty years on, although much more still needs to be done to achieve gender equity, significant steps have been made in the mainstreaming of gender in planning processes alongside the delivery of interventions specifically targeting women and girls.
However, twelve years before Beijing, the UN also launched a Decade of Disabled Persons. As I prepared for an event in New York to celebrate the adoption of more inclusive SDGs last year, I was given a speech that Sightsavers’ founder, Sir John Wilson, had given in evidence to the UN as part of the decade’s adoption. The Decade was designed to deliver the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons. It is ‘of its time’ in terms of language and the conflation of prevention and inclusion is deeply problematic. But I’d encourage everyone to read it. Then read the text of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which was ready for signature 24 years later. If the two were handed in by students in the same class, one would be suspended for plagiarism.
We clearly knew much of what needed doing in 1983, and we knew disability needed to be a priority. Yet seventeen years later the world agreed the Millennium Declaration, lauded as visionary. The Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) followed. And still disability was nowhere to be seen. No goals, no targets, no indicators.
So, the recommendations on display at ICED’s symposium are a sign of the growing evidence base and interest in disability. As are both the CRPD and more recently, the SDG framework.
But the fact that being partially included in a framework approved more than thirty years after the World Programme is seen as a huge step forward is, frankly, scandalous; and clear evidence of how little people with disabilities have learned to expect. Since 1983, three generations of kids with disabilities have missed out on education, three generations of adults with disabilities have missed out on employment, and three generations of the planet have missed out on much of the potential of 15% of the population.
I’d encourage anyone to read and act on the findings and recommendations from the ICED’s Symposium, because they’re based on the best evidence we have. But I’ll borrow my last words from the 1980s and the World Programme of Action:
- “There will always be people with disabilities and societies have to identify and remove obstacles to their full participation.”
- “Anyone in charge of any kind of enterprise should make it accessible to people with disabilities. This applies to public agencies […] to NGOs […] to firms and to private individuals [… and] the international level.”
- “The disabled themselves should have a substantive influence in deciding the effectiveness of policies, programmes and services designed for their benefit.”
So for anyone serious about disruptive change, the first question to ask is whether we have considered these three statements. If we haven’t, we will be actively choosing to leave people with disabilities behind from the changes we are promoting. So in reality, we’re not disrupting at all; we’re supporting the status quo of exclusion for one billion people.
For the SDGs to lead to actual change in the lives of people with disabilities, it requires all those involved in enacting them to make the decision not to be exclusive. Once you’ve done that, the next step is simple: talk to people with disabilities and their representative organisations. They are the real experts in their own inclusion, whatever the change you’re planning …