Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” This is very true for persons with disabilities.
The Millennium Development Goal target of reducing global poverty has been achieved, with more than 1 billion people lifted out of extreme poverty. No reports or data show how many persons with disabilities were lifted out of poverty globally. But ADD International’s experience — and a growing body of academic research — shows that poverty affects persons with disability disproportionately.
In the last decades, world growth has been enormous. At the same time, the increase of inequality has also been mountainous — a study shows that the 85 richest people on the planet boast the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world. Muhammad Yunus recently warned that unless the purpose of business is reformulated, the world will end up with almost all the wealth of the planet concentrated in the hands of a few people. Persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups have been left behind — they are worst affected by poverty and inequality.
I recently spoke on these issues in the interactive dialogue on ending poverty and hunger at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. The Global Goals bring a fundamental shift. The new agenda includes 11 explicit references to persons with disabilities. Disability is referenced in seven targets, within the goals on inclusive education, employment and decent work, reducing inequalities, cities and human settlements, and data collection. This is outstanding progress.
But the only way to put these goals into practice is by ensuring participation of the most marginalized people in their implementation. Only marginalized people can tell us how to overcome the barriers that they face and how to bring transformational change in their lives. So we need to work in partnership with them to end poverty and hunger.
We need participation at all levels — from grassroots development programs, to global decision making processes. The U.N. must ensure representation of marginalized people in the High-Level Political Forum to review the progress of the SDGs. This includes reaching out to civil society organizations run by — and representing — the most marginalized groups, including organizations of persons with disabilities.
And if participation is to be meaningful, we must break down the physical, informational and attitudinal barriers that might exclude some groups. For example, development actors should ensure appropriate support for persons with disabilities to participate in consultations — including by ensuring physical accessibility, by providing information in alternative formats, and by offering sign language interpretation.
The most marginalized people often cannot travel to attend international meetings and consultations due to a lack of resources. The global community should create a fund designed to ensure participation of the most marginalized people. They also face linguistic barriers. They should increasingly be allowed to give oral evidence, information and views in their own language, and the U.N. should keep abreast of developments in translation technologies that could help with this over the next 15 years.
It is an important sign of hope that marginalized people, including persons with disabilities, were strongly represented at the U.N. SDG summit. This also included speeches by Vladimir Cuk, executive director at the International Disability Alliance, and other civil society leaders like Winnie Byanyima, executive director at Oxfam International. And Malala Yousafzai, speaking with 193 youth representatives from 193 countries, asked world leaders to promise that every child will have the right to safe, free and quality primary and secondary education.
It is also promising that world leaders from diverse backgrounds — from Pope Francis to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron — expressed commitment to the principle that “no-one should be left behind” in future global development.
I worked for 20 years with persons with disabilities living in extreme poverty in Bangladesh. It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina express a firm determination to address challenges faced by vulnerable people and promote the rights of autistic and other persons with disabilities, to build an inclusive society.
But, as Winston Churchill once said, we have not reached the end of the battle — nor even the beginning of the end.
The next challenge is to set the indicators that measure progress against the goals — a topic set to be hotly debated in a major U.N. statistical meeting next week. If the global goals are to live up to their commitment to “reach the furthest behind first,” it is crucial that the indicators be disaggregated — by disability, income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, geographic location, among other characteristics.
The field of disability statistics, for example, has made great progress over the past 10 years, and there are now low-cost methods to generate disability data. I will be speaking up for these methods at next weekend’s meeting, to ensure the world has the data to know whether persons with disabilities are being left behind.
We need to empower marginalized people to make governments accountable to their citizens for fulfilling the global goals. Only then will the aspirations of persons with disabilities — from Bangladesh, to Burkina Faso, to Bolivia — be fulfilled.
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