Four Years On, The World Has Changed on Disability

Tim Wainwright, CEO of ADD International (& also chair of BOND), finds much to celebrate todayTim_wainwright_2_920x920

Four years ago I wrote a blog, expressing my concern about how I felt that mainstream development was largely overlooking a large and highly excluded group: persons with disabilities. [Quick note on terminology: we use the term ‘persons with disabilities’ to reflect the UNCRPD terminology, but we recognise that disability rights movements worldwide also use ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘disabled people’]

Writing today, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I think that the world has moved on. The question now is not if persons with disabilities should be included in development – but how.

A global promise

In the last four years we’ve seen an amazing shift. At global level, Agenda 2030 (aka the Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals) includes 11 mentions of the inclusion of persons with disabilities within a wider commitment to ‘leave no-one behind’. When world leaders gathered in New York to adopt the Agenda,  Barack Obama and the Pope both spoke about persons with disabilities. Disability is also included in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, and the latest draft of the World Bank’s social and environmental safeguarding mechanism. And here in the UK, DFID today marks the first anniversary of the publication of its Disability Framework with a refreshed version.

Photo by ADD International
Photo by ADD International

It’s not just globally or in developed countries that things have been changing.  In less than a decade the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) has been ratified in over 150 countries. Gradually, this has translated into positive changes in policy and practice even in very resource-poor contexts – for example in Tanzania, where ADD International is working with the local disability movement to help the government implement its new National Strategy on Inclusive Education.

How did this happen, you might ask?

Well, I think it had something to do with a relatively small group of organisations – members of the global disability movement and its allies such as ADD International – with a recent history of successful campaigning for the UNCRPD. These organisations came together again to campaign on the post-2015 agenda, and agreed on some very simple, sensible ‘asks’, backed up by evidence.

This mobilisation coincided with support from some key decision makers such as David Cameron on the Post-2015 High Level Panel, Macharia Kamau and Csaba Korosi on the SDG Open Working Group, and UN missions ranging from Australia to Brazil to Ecuador. Social mobilisation and political leadership were mutually reinforcing: it’s arguable that without the groundswell of activist and popular support for disability inclusion in the SDGs, it would have been hard for the decision makers to take the stand that they did. (A similar argument has been made on the role of feminist movements in changing norms on gender-based violence).

Crucially, the voices of persons with disabilities were front and centre to the campaign, and one of our key asks was that persons with disabilities from the South should be present in meetings. When invited, these excellent representatives made a case no-one could ignore.

And that’s why it meant such a lot that it wasn’t only the Pope and Barack Obama who spoke about disability at the

Photo by ADD International
Photo by ADD International

Summit to adopt the SDGs, but also two representatives of the global disability movement and its allies – Vladimir Cuk from the International Disability Alliance, and my colleague Mosharraf Hossain. This would have been unthinkable when I wrote that first blog in 2011.

From commitment to action

Now, the question is turning to: ‘so how do we  include persons with disabilities?’

Actually, it’s getting a bit more specific: ‘How do we do this in livelihoods, in education, in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), in health, in transportation? How do we include women with disabilities, how do we work with older or younger disabled people, or with persons with disabilities living with HIV and AIDS? How do we ensure good evidence and disaggregated data?’

And a second, harder question follows: ‘How do we do this, to scale?’

Partnership and participation

I believe that the secret to tackling these twin challenges lies in partnership and participation.

Partnership is needed to support those organisations with good reach and sectoral knowledge to extend their services to fully include persons with disabilities.

Photo by ADD International
Photo by ADD International

We at ADD have started to do this, both globally (for instance partnering with major think-tanks to look at economic inclusion through the lens of disability and gender) and locally (for example working with specialist justice NGOs to include women with disabilities in their programmes on gender-based violence).

Participation should be second nature to anyone in development. However, the phase ‘nothing about us without us’, a rallying call for the disability movement globally, is still one that needs repeating, sometimes quite loudly, in even the holiest of development shrines.

I am still shocked by how easy non-disabled people find it to have a meeting about disability and not notice that the people they are discussing are not represented, in the same way that people used to accept men-only boards and panels. I urge you to reflect on this next time you attend a meeting on the topic of exclusion – ask yourself who is not in the room, who is not invited to speak?

Looking at the future

Amazing changes have been taken place and it’s thanks to many people all across the development spectrum who have backed the inclusion of persons with disabilities in mainstream development.

Now, to tackle the challenge of how best to do this, we need to foster new partnerships, bringing together inclusion expertise with sectoral actors who can achieve scale, and we have to remember that only if persons with disabilities from the South are involved in a meaningful way from the very beginning will we ever stand a chance of leaving no-one behind.

2015 Infographic Global Promise

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3 Responses to “Four Years On, The World Has Changed on Disability”
  1. On your question, “how do we include persons with disabilities … in health” I would like to draw your attention to a new case study that we have just published: . It looks at inclusion of persons with disabilities in the health sector in Cambodia and at some of the implementation lessons we can draw from this experience. The approach, implemented by GIZ together with local disabled people’s organisations and other partners, was basically two-pronged: mainstreaming the perspective into existing health projects, combined with specific targeted activities. But this hasn’t been an easy journey. It took considerable perseverance and resources to bring the topic on the agenda, integrate the perspective into existing systems, trial and error tools etc. And while a sectoral approach seemed straightforward, it quickly encountered structural barriers, and broader partnerships (beyond health in this case) were/are needed. We have to start somewhere but we have to bear in mind that marginalisation of persons with disabilities is a challenge for society as a whole.

    P.S.: This case study was also a main impetus for us to change the basic concept of our health and social protection case study series, which had been to document “good practices” (since 2004). Over time we came to realise that this concept was too rigid and linear. It constrained us in the way we document and share the complex, non-linear reality of programme implementation. While we have long been thinking about this, we took the Cambodia case study as an opportunity to start a discussion about the limits of the ‘good practices’ concept within the three participating institutions (of official German Development Cooperation). This was a really productive and open process and last month we have jointly decided to focus on broader learning, e.g. “how” programmes deal with implementation challenges, “how” they adapt and learn, etc. And now we are curious how this will work out in our next case studies… (We are still looking for a new “label” instead of “good practices”. At the moment we tend towards “learning from implementation” but if anyone has a “sexier” phrase, we’d be most grateful.)

    Viktor Siebert (advisor, GIZ)

  2. Laura Liu

    The UNCRPD defines “persons with disabilities” as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” I’m currently working on a project that has to do with mental disabilities and illnesses in refugee camp populations in Jordan, and I am wondering if this change in the way we view persons with disabilities also applies to mental disabilities as much as physical ones? I can see the trend that you mention pretty clearly in terms of physical disabilities (which is really encouraging!), but I also would like to know whether you’ve found our perspective on mental illnesses to be changing in the same way (especially since mental illnesses are so difficult to identify).


    you have done it, I am full of joy for what you are doing. I am a professional community based rehabilitation worker, majoring in disability studies with a degree [BCBR], from Kyambogo University Kampala Uganda. I desire to work with you were there is possibility.