At UN disability rights conference, experts question UN inclusivity

The Permanent Mission of Ecuador organized the temporary installation of an inclusive playground, with the aim of promoting empathy and playfulness for all children, including those with disabilities at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Photo by: Loey Felipe / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — People living with disabilities are more likely to struggle with social and political inclusion, including within the United Nations system itself, according to disability experts.

The U.N. must look inward as much as it looks outward to help elevate the lives of people living with disabilities worldwide, experts and advocates said this week during the annual disability rights conference at U.N. Headquarters.

“If we recognize the full citizenship of people with disabilities, the rest will come.”

— Thai Parliament senator and member of the Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

“Across all the pillars of the work of the organization, the picture is not a pretty one. The U.N. is still not a fully inclusive organization, when it comes to recruitment of staff with disabilities, when it comes to procurement, when it comes to organizing conferences and services,” Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the first special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, told media during a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon.

“There is a lack of mainstreaming of the rights with disabilities, there is a lack of capacity and understanding the new paradigm, and there is, or there was, a lack of high-level leadership in all of the entities,” explained Aguilar, referencing a new initiative by U.N. chief António Guterres.  

Guterres released the U.N.’s first disability inclusion strategy on Tuesday, marking the opening of the 12th Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which runs from June 11-13.  

Approximately 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability and the prevalence is higher for people in developing countries. The number of people with disabilities is on the rise, according to the World Health Organization, and the available data is likely not fully representative of the population.

But more than a decade after the majority of U.N. states signed and ratified the legally binding human rights treaty that ensures equal rights for all people with disabilities, people in wheelchairs are still unable to access the U.N. General Assembly hall, Aguilar explained.

“We cannot continue to deal with a GA hall that is not accessible for wheelchair users. We cannot continue to not be able to enter bathrooms. There is a lot to do and we are not happy about that, but what I am optimistic about is we now have a framework of action,” Aguilar said.  

Aguilar led reporting work last year that shows gaps in mainstreaming disability inclusion across all pillars of the U.N. system, and the lack of dedicated capacity by any U.N. entity to coordinate and track progress on delivering work inclusive of people with disabilities.

Guterres’ new five-year strategy includes an indicator system on leadership, strategic planning and management, inclusiveness, programming, and organizational culture that all U.N. entities will have to work toward and report on.

“It requires this organization to be held accountable on how they are doing with persons with disabilities, but also it is important that it will provide the support at national levels,” Aguilar said, in response to a Devex question about implementation of the strategy. “UNICEF, UNDP, and all the agencies working at country level will have to support programmatically the implementation of the convention and that is a fundamental change and is something that is strongly needed.”

This year’s U.N. conference on disability rights, expected to draw more than 1,400 participants, focuses in part on data and technology inclusivity.

The new strategy marks another step in the evolution of disability rights over the past 20 years, Monthian Buntan, a Thai Parliament senator and member of the Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, told Devex in an interview. While the Millennium Development Goals did not mention people with disabilities, the successor Sustainable Development Goals have multiple indicators related to health, work, and equality.

“There is a growing call for the U.N. system itself to be more accessible to persons with disabilities,” Buntan said. “[If] we do not recognize the full citizenship and existence of people with disabilities, if we do not accept it is a normal part of human diversity, we will not have the right responses. If we recognize the full citizenship of people with disabilities, the rest will come.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.