SEATTLE – In early December, governments and civic organizations across the globe celebrated the International Day of People with Disabilities, a United Nations effort to build awareness and support for people with disabilities.
Each year the UN chooses a theme for the day. This year’s theme was Inclusion Matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities. Included in this theme were issues related to making cities inclusive and accessible for all, improving disability data and statistics, and including people with invisible disabilities in society and development.
“The annual theme provides a frame for considering how people with disability are excluded from society by promoting the removal of all types of barriers; including those relating to the physical environment, information and communications technology (ICT), or attitudinal barriers,” states the website dedicated to the day.
The day presents an important opportunity to bring focus to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that include seven targets directly aimed at persons with disabilities and another six at persons in vulnerable situations, which includes persons with disabilities.
“The Post-2015 Development Agenda clearly states that disability cannot be a reason or criteria for lack of access to development programs,” according to a statement by The World Bank. “The new framework is audacious. It unequivocally bolsters equal opportunities for persons with disabilities in access to education, vocational training, jobs, transportation, public spaces, human settlements, and political life.”
Eighty percent of people with disabilities live in developing countries. The economic gains made in these countries do not always reach people with disabilities. To address this, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the development community are working toward making inclusive progress through two complementary strategies.
The first focuses on creating programs that address the specific needs of people with disabilities. In Vietnam, USAID supported the creation of the Disability Information System (DIS) to facilitate data collection, service delivery and communication between patients and healthcare workers.
Using the system, case managers are able to track patient needs and progress, build and share reports and refer patients to specialists that have been listed in a comprehensive new database of disability support providers.
The DIS has expanded to 14 provinces across the country in a two-year period, thanks in large part to its cost-effective, open-source software design.
The second strategy focuses on integrating disability support services into the broader programs already underway in developing countries. To promote equal access to education and employment, USAID supports the development of assistive technology, training for educators and employers and microcredit programs among many other case-specific initiatives.
The agency also works to strengthen advocacy organizations and inclusive public policies that address marginalization from society.
Still, work needs to be done to address not only the exclusion faced by people with disabilities in developing countries, but also the causes of that exclusion and their contribution to cycles of poverty. In many areas, people with physical or mental impairments are stigmatized for cultural or religious reasons; the impairment is perceived to be a divine punishment or sign of evil and is handled with shame.
For example, UNICEF estimates that nearly 90 percent of children with disabilities in the developing world are not enrolled in primary school, which is one of the leading causes of lifelong poverty. In response, UNICEF has funded initiatives to foster supportive attitudes and environments for children with disabilities. One such program, The Portage Model, has been used in 90 countries and translated into 30 languages.
Portage is based on early identification and intervention, with aspects targeting early diagnosis, family support, and community education. The objective is to make sure that children do not go without primary education and subsequently face lifelong marginalization and poverty.
“The inclusion of children with disabilities is a matter of social justice and an essential investment in the future of society,” the organization says. “It is not based on charity or goodwill but is an integral element of the expression and realization of universal human rights.”