Aid agencies can do better on disability, UN expert says

By Amy Lieberman 28 October 2016

Catalina Devandas Aguilar, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

The U.N. expert on disabilities pressed the case for disability-inclusive public policies in a report released on Wednesday, laying out the need for new approaches that fall in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nondiscrimination, accessibility and support services are all key to ensuring that people living with disabilities are not “left behind” in development initiatives, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the U.N. secretary-general’s special rapporteur on the rights of people with disabilities told media at a U.N. press briefing on Wednesday afternoon.

Devandas Aguilar, a native of Costa Rica, assumed her post in November 2014. A lawyer by training, she previously worked in disability rights for the U.N. Secretariat, the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund and as a consultant for the World Bank. Devex spoke to her after the press briefing about the hidden costs of excluding people with disabilities from discussions and policies, and how aid agencies are faring when it comes to the issue. Here are some key takeaways from our conversation.

1. The cost of excluding people with disabilities is high.

More than 1 billion people, or 15 percent of the global population, live with some form of disability. That percentage tends to be higher in developing countries but also in places such as New Zealand, where 24 percent of the population recently identified as disabled. Lack of inclusion impacts individuals and their families, as well as a country’s national productivity.

“There are a lot of people that are not participating, that are not benefiting, that are being put on pension in the best of cases,” Devandas Aguilar told Devex after the briefing. “It makes sense why there would be a high cost to this.”

Her office is coordinating with researchers focused on poverty to quantify the cost of exclusion to society.

“Until now, there has been no systematic consideration of what are the costs associated to living with a disability,” said Devandas Aguilar. “Many times people with disabilities might not be [officially] under the poverty line because you are not considering those specific, additional costs. When you use what is called a multidimensional assessment of poverty, you will see that many of those persons will be under [the poverty line] because of the excessive costs they have.”

2. Mixed progress on inclusion at aid agencies, but no coordinated approach.

Since the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Disabilities was signed nearly 10 years ago, there have been some “important changes” in how bilateral and international organizations address the subject, Devandas Aguilar said. But efforts to foster inclusive programs and spaces are limited, and often confined to specific programming rather than mainstreamed throughout. The U.N. building itself does not have signs in braille, she noted.

“There is a certain reluctancy in some agencies, I will say the World Bank is one of them, to advance at the right pace,” she said.

In the last five years, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and the Australian government have adopted strategies to mainstream the rights of people with disabilities throughout their aid programs. Australia is currently undergoing an evaluation of their mainstreaming process, according to Devandas Aguilar.

The United States Agency for International Development has “made some efforts.” Meanwhile for the European Union and Germany, “much more can be done at that level,” she said.

“All of them, as I mentioned, have started [work in mainstreaming], but I still think that most of it is not quite coordinated and so what you see is that you have a specific program, but then it doesn’t talk to the other mainstream programs,” Devandas Aguilar said.

These specific programs can receive limited funding and then may also not connect to broader programs and work, like access to political participation, which require greater inclusivity.

3. Siloes affect programming at the country level, too.

Conversations about disability tend to play out differently at the international compared to the national level, Devandas Aguilar observed.

“At the international level, the discourse is far more advanced — if you meet with the heads of agencies, etc. When you go and meet with the same agencies, but with people that are in the day-to-day [operations], they are just concerned with their portfolio,” she said.

The reality then becomes about more “basic things” such as how an organization is actually engaging with people living with disabilities and their organizations.

“You know, I have replies of, ‘We are contacting them, we know, we have open calls,’ and it is a question of, are those open calls accessible?” Devandas Aguilar said. “They have no clue of how to make [the calls] accessible, there is never sign language interpretation provided, the places where they meet are not accessible for persons with physical disabilities, and then you start noticing how you are not connecting dots in reaching these people.”

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About the author

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Amy Liebermanamylieberman

Amy Lieberman is a reporter for Devex, based out of New York, where she covers global development around the city and out of the United Nations. She has previously worked as a freelancer, reporting on the environment, social justice issues, immigration and development. Her coverage has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. She received her M.A. in politics and government from Columbia Journalism School in 2014.


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