LONDON — The new head of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development has pledged to put disability “at the heart” of everything it does in her first public speech since taking the role.
Speaking ahead of International Day of People with Disabilities on Sunday, Penny Mordaunt — who was appointed last month following the shock departure of Priti Patel — said the issue of disability-inclusive development “will be one of my top priorities.”
In her first speech as U.K. secretary of state for international development, Penny Mordaunt will announce Thursday that the country is to host a major summit on disability-inclusive development in 2018, building on her background as minister for disabled people.
Advocates welcomed the commitment but warned that DFID will need to be careful about how it approaches the complex issue. More work is needed to help people with multiple disabilities, they said, and larger international NGOs and agencies must be more involved in the issue.
Mordaunt — who was formerly minister of state for disabled people, health and work in the Department for Work and Pensions — was speaking at a “Solutions to Disability Inclusion” event on Thursday. The event was co-hosted by DFID and NGO network Bond, and held at the head office of technology company Microsoft in London.
She also unveiled plans to host a Global Disability Summit in London next year, alongside the International Disability Alliance. The aim is to convene global leaders, companies, and civil society around the issue and commit to giving people with disabilities “the opportunity to fulfil their true potential and to help their countries prosper,” she said in her speech.
Disability advocates said they were relieved to see Mordaunt continue the momentum within DFID for support of disability rights, which had also been championed by Patel.
“It’s fantastically encouraging for us that the new secretary of state is as passionate and committed to disability as the previous one and it’s clear she has vast amounts of U.K. experience to bring to the role,” said Kirsty Smith, chief executive officer of international disability charity CBM U.K. “To hear her say [she is going to] put disabilities at the heart of DFID’s work is so encouraging.”
Sightsavers’ CEO Dr Caroline Harper agreed: “We’ve been seeing a lot of momentum building up within DFID [on disability] … and that speech today, we couldn’t have asked for more,” she said.
Reaching those with complex needs
While no new standalone funding was announced for disability programs, Aleema Shivji, director of Handicap International U.K., said next year’s summit could help to “mainstream” disability across the U.K.’s development work.
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“The most effective funding is when all programs are inclusive of disabilities,” Shivji said. While having dedicated disability funding can be “really good” for piloting new approaches or innovation, “if you actually want to turn it into something which can actually scale up you’ve got to make sure that every education program includes children with disabilities, for example,” she said. This will mean that more organizations have to start taking disability inclusiveness seriously, so that “it’s not just us as disability agencies, it’s working alongside other agencies,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges is reaching people with multiple or “invisible” disabilities, such as mental illness and hearing impairments, Smith said. “There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that people with complex and invisible disabilities … are not excluded,” she said.
Although the international community and DFID are “well on the road to having a far greater understanding” of how to respond to those complex needs, Smith said she was disappointed to see few major international NGOs at Thursday’s event, adding that disability is not yet a “significant enough cross-cutting issue” within the development sector.
“I would love to see some of the main players from mainstream organization here because until we are able to harness the Oxfams and the Save the Childrens of this world, the impact we have as primarily disability charities will always be limited,” she said.
One possible solution would be for DFID to insist that all organizations receiving U.K. official development assistance for humanitarian work, for example, have a disability inclusive approach, she suggested.
Education and training are key
Joanna Clark, director of Deaf Child Worldwide, described Mordaunt’s announcement as “an important step in the right direction,” but emphasised the scale of the problem, especially when it comes to disabled children, many of whom “never get close to a classroom” in developing countries, she said. Those who are in education face additional barriers.
“I see too many deaf children whose teachers can’t communicate with them, lessons that don’t engage them, and students who don’t understand them,” she said.
A report published Friday by the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education found that educational gaps between children with and without disabilities have increased significantly across many developing countries in recent years. Less than half of children with disabilities complete primary school, and 3 in 10 have never set foot in a classroom.
Speaking at the event, Joseph Kamara, founder of the Welfare Society for the Disabled, a charity for disabled people in Sierra Leone, called for “stronger partnership between civil society, the private sector and government to help empower the disability movement,” especially in education.
He said the sector needs improved research and evidence about what works, and also needs to “harness the power of new technology” to provide disabled children with materials in accessible formats so that they have more opportunities to learn.
Meanwhile, Rasmus Schjoedt, social policy specialist at Development Pathways, a U.K. development consulting group, said that DFID needs to channel more resources into ensuring disabled people get the support they need in order to enable them to work.
“Most people with disabilities can and want to work, but they need support … in accessing education and employment,” he said. In Asia and the Pacific, only 10 percent of people with severe disabilities are able to access disability benefits, he said.
Kamara agreed, saying that governments need to work with the private sector to provide more technical and vocational training for children with disabilities to equip them for the workforce. This can help “break negative attitudes towards disability,” he said.
Harnessing new technology
Participants at Thursday’s event also heard about the “critical role” technology can play “in removing barriers and empowering people with disabilities,” according to Hugh Milward, senior director of corporate and external legal affairs at Microsoft. Milward talked about some of the work Microsoft is supporting, including teaching coding to people with disabilities in the Philippines, but he also outlined how the company is implementing “inclusive design and inclusive hiring initiatives.”
“If we ignore the disabled population, we’re missing a population of talent,” he said.
David Constantine, director and founder of UK charity Motivation, talked about the importance of technological advances in “assisted devices” for people with disabilities such as crutches, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs.
“The day I was given a chair which was well designed and properly fitted … changed my life overnight … [but] for millions of people in developing countries those pieces of equipment aren’t provided … We have a real chance here to change that,” he said.
He also called on DFID to support disability for the long-term, rather than looking for short-term fixes.
Natasha Kennedy, Sightsavers’ head of multilateral engagement and campaigns, also called for stronger accountability, which she described as being “particularly weak within the context of disability,” pointing to a lack of understanding about how targets and commitments are being implemented and the impact they are having.
There is a also a lack of data, she said in a blog, and called on international agreement on how to measure, collect, and compare data on disability.
As a first step, Sightsavers wants world leaders to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by 2020, and will be petitioning the World Bank to make disability a focus as it seeks to replenish the International Development Assistance pot in 2019, which provides loans to the world’s poorest countries.