The forgotten 15 per cent – why has disability dropped off the world’s agenda?

Over the last decade, international development has hinged on the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Launched by the UN back in 2000, they were designed as unifying goals to prioritize resources for poverty reduction and international development over a 15-year period.

Schoolchildren in the Bahamas take part in their annual summer play.

obi1323 under a CC Licence.

They include an ambitious set of targets: reduce by half the number of people living on less than a $1.25 a day; ensure every child has a primary education; reduce child mortality by two-thirds; reduce maternal death by three-quarters; and halt and reverse the spread of AIDS and HIV.

But at an international summit in Bangkok this month, senior development advisors said the MDGs have ignored the issue of disability and, in doing so, have neglected the needs of 15 per cent of the world’s population.

‘The 1 billion people with disabilities are just not in the mix,’ said Professor Nora Groce, chair of the Leonard Cheshire Inclusive Development Centre at University College London. ‘They are not mentioned in the 8 goals, the 21 targets or the 60 indicators that we use as a global community to address the most pressing problems in international development.’

The lack of any explicit mention of disability in the MDGs has reinforced a major blind-spot within international development. While organizations and governments tend to acknowledge the need for specific disability support services, there is a lack of recognition that persons with disabilities also need access to the same resources as everyone else, including education, employment, healthcare and social and legal support systems.

Rendered invisible

Advising the conference were members of Leonard Cheshire Disability’s Young Voices campaign. These youth campaigners with disabilities from over 20 countries have direct experience of being rendered invisible.

Today, 80 to 90 per cent of persons with disabilities of working age in developing countries are unemployed. Yet the MDGs make no reference to inclusive and accessible employment. Seray Bangura, 21, from Sierra Leone highlighted the issue of irrelevant and poor-quality training offered to young people with disabilities: ‘We are still being given training in crafts and skills that have no market value, like gara tie-dying. These outdated skills will not help us into employment.’

98 per cent of children with disabilities are still out of school across the world

Last World AIDS Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reinforced the UN’s vision of ‘zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.’ But there is no drive for accessible testing or information, despite a growing body of research that shows that people with disabilities face a disproportionately high risk of contracting HIV.

Josephine Namirimu, a 23 year old from Uganda, is frustrated with the lack of action around sexual health and disability: ‘As women with disabilities we are regularly abused and raped. First of all we are marginalized as women, and secondly due to our disability. There is a constant risk of sexual harassment and exploitation and there has been no voice or response to that.’

MDG 2, which focuses on universal education, is the only goal where significant steps have been taken to improve inclusion. Yet speaking at the conference, Bob Prouty of the Global Education Partnership said 98 per cent of children with disabilities are still out of school across the world: ‘While we now know how many are out of school, it is a scandal that we do not know who these children are, where they are or why they are not in school.’

Disability rights

The most significant milestone for disability rights was the adoption of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. Since it came into force, it has been ratified by over 100 countries. But there is still a disconnect between what is pledged on paper and the efforts on the ground.

As we move closer to 2015 and the deadline for the MDGs, global disability networks are determined to see disability included in the next wave of international development targets. Their shared agenda includes addressing the lack of research and data on disability and development, often cited as an excuse for inaction. It also involves encouraging funding imperatives that would commit donor recipients to include people with disabilities as beneficiaries and within management and decision-making levels.

‘This is not just an agenda for people with disabilities,’ says Akiko Ito of the UN’s Department of Economic & Social Affairs. ‘We are promoting human rights for all and therefore advancing the goal of the international community as a whole. Lasting peace and security is only possible if economic and social wellbeing of people everywhere is assured.’

Libby Powell is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to New Internationalist magazine.