Currently, there is an unprecedented impetus behind the inclusion of people with disabilities in international development. This sea change is a result of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which became operational in 2008 and has been ratified by nearly all UN member states. The CRPD requires that “international cooperation, including international development programs” be “inclusive of and accessible to persons with disabilities.” The CRPD’s mandates are reflected in country-level and UN agency programming, and they are also reinforced through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted in 2015. Hence, global development efforts are legally bound to include disability as a crosscutting issue in the realization of human rights as part of the effort to “leave no one behind.” This recognition is vital. Globally, over a billion persons with disabilities experience exclusion from health services, education, employment, political participation, and many other social opportunities. Circumstances are particularly dire for the 800 million disabled persons living in the developing world, especially for individuals experiencing intersectional discrimination such as women and girls with disabilities.
The World Bank has developed an Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) to protect against disability-based discrimination in Bank-financed projects. Importantly, the ESF promotes reasonable accommodations in its labor practices, the use of universal design in construction, and other avenues (including grievance mechanisms) through which to include disabled persons. The Bank, moreover, has made ten pledges supportive of the SDGs.
There has also been significant progress amongst a handful of national-level development agencies in adopting disability-inclusive mandates and evolving their programming to reflect that commitment, most notably by Australia and the United Kingdom.
Despite formal initiatives for including persons with disabilities in international development, disability inclusion lags behind in practice. We, therefore, highlight six key areas, each of which presents an opportunity for transformative change.
1) Data Collection: States have historically utilized low quality census data as evidence that disability was largely absent from their societies, thereby inhibiting appropriate resource allocation to the sector and hindering disability-inclusive programming. By contrast, and hastened by both the CRPD and the SDGs, quality disability-related data is increasingly being collected, notably by utilizing the Washington Group Short Set of Questions in national household surveys. Significantly, only about 19 states included a set of disability questions in 1970, compared to 120 states by 2010. Quality, comparable, disaggregated disability data will be vital to determining progress towards international inclusive development commitments and evaluating where gaps remain. Indeed, SDG Target 17.18 compels states to provide data disaggregated by disability, as well as other characteristics. Moving forward, it is crucial that people with disabilities and their representative organizations (DPOs) actively participate in monitoring and evaluation. Fortunately, global platforms and databases are being developed to build DPO capacity and enable more effective monitoring.
2) Information and Communication Technology (ICT): Accessible ICT can enable persons with disabilities to engage in social opportunities such as education, employment, and community interaction. CRPD Articles 9 and 21 obligate states to ensure the accessibility of ICT, the UN’s G3ict initiative has been promoting ICT accessibility worldwide, and clear standards exist under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Nevertheless, a significant digital divide separates people with and without disabilities. Notably, the majority of state websites are inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Moreover, less than 10 percent of published books are accessible in the Global North, and under 1 percent in the Global South. Importantly, the 2013 Marrakesh Treaty reinforces the CRPD’s obligations and encourages the exchange of accessible eBooks. Going forward, it is essential that DPOs participate in ITC product development so that future technology reflects their needs and capabilities.
3) Education: People with disabilities continue to face a multitude of barriers in accessing education, ranging from social stigma to inaccessible schools. Consequently, students with disabilities are dramatically less likely to attend school and complete fewer years of education than their non-disabled peers. Notwithstanding these barriers, there are significant reasons for hope. CRPD Article 24 mandates “an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning,” a requirement that is mirrored by SDG Goal 4.5. Over the past decade, many States have developed national legislation and policies to enable the inclusion of children with disabilities, yet significant gaps remain between statutory aspirations and lived realities. The same is true for students with disabilities seeking access to higher education, particularly in developing countries. Ensuring access to lifelong learning is crucial given the shift to a digital world.
4) Humanitarian Assistance: Currently, only about 1 percent of humanitarian assistance budgets are estimated to support persons with disabilities. Indeed, a survey of Syrian refugees found that 75 percent of persons with disabilities had insufficient access to basic services. CRPD Article 11 requires state parties to take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies, and the occurrence of natural disasters.” Subsequent formal commitments, such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit’s Declaration, have had little practical effect. Thus, in 2019 the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee released guidelines designed with DPOs to promote disability-inclusive humanitarian assistance. Disability-appropriate humanitarian responses will require inclusive budgeting, DPO participation, increased capacity among humanitarian workers, support from targeted actors, and effective monitoring.
5) Global Warming. Climate change disproportionately affects persons with disabilities. Whether during extreme weather, disaster, or forced migration, persons with disabilities face greater health impacts, mortality rates, and abandonment. The 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster, for example, documented four times as many deaths among the disabled. These impacts were acknowledged by a 2019 UN Human Rights Council resolution, which called upon states to promote the rights of persons with disabilities when taking action to address climate change. Future responses will need to acknowledge the unique needs as well as capabilities of persons with disabilities. Climate mitigation and adaptation efforts will promote disability-related rights only if DPOs are positioned as central actors and stakeholders participating in decision-making, implementation, and monitoring.
6) Employment: Employment rates of people with disabilities worldwide are significantly lower than those of their non-disabled peers, averaging 36 percent compared to 60 percent. Furthermore, persons with disabilities are often self-employed or employed in the informal economy and, consequently, have less secure employment and lower wages. Discriminatory attitudes, exclusion from education, inaccessible workplaces, and a lack of transportation all contribute to these obdurate, lower rates. Moreover, employees with disabilities will soon confront a labor market profoundly impacted by Artificial Intelligence (AI). CRPD Article 27 “recognizes the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others,” whereas SDG Target 8.5 calls for “full and productive employment and decent work” for disabled persons by 2030. Notably, states have been developing disability-based anti-discrimination legislation. As of 2018, 56 percent of low-income states prohibited disability-based discrimination in the workplace, while 38 percent required the provision of reasonable accommodations. Policies for inclusive employment can enable entrepreneurship through inclusive microfinance, vocational training, job placement, supported employment, increased access to secondary and tertiary education, and affirmative action. AI solutions could increase the employment rates of persons with disabilities by enabling inclusive hiring, professional development, and increased workplace accessibility. Conversely, there is a profound risk of perpetuating historical discrimination by using biased training data. Persons with disabilities should be involved in developing AI standards and inclusive data sets.
There is growing momentum toward disability-inclusive development; however, implementing the CRPD and the SDGs will require rapid, transformational change. DPOs need to lead this change, forging allegiances with diverse allies—including those within the state—and fomenting political will to ensure realization of the State’s international obligations.
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Professor Michael Ashley Stein is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, and a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School since 2005. Considered one of the world’s leading experts on disability law and policy, Dr. Stein participated in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; works with disabled peoples’ organizations and non-governmental organizations around the world; actively consults with governments on their disability laws and policies; advises a number of UN bodies and national human rights institutions; and has brought landmark disability rights litigation globally.
Dr. Penelope J.S. Stein is a Senior Associate of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, and a Research Fellow of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. She earned a Ph.D from Cambridge University. Dr. Stein’s research interests and writing include disability human rights, implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, disability and development, capacity building of disabled peoples’ organizations, and disability laws and policies in Asia.