Sahah Abdurrahman from Sudan says although persons with disabilities like him are perceived to be unable to make advances in education, the instinct and appetite for learning makes that possible. Photo by: Hamid Abdulsalam / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Disability advocates, implementers, and politicians meet in London this week to discuss how to ensure people with disabilities are not left behind by the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Having fought hard to get disability included in the 2030 Agenda, where it is explicitly referred to 11 times — in contrast with the Millennium Development Goals, which made no mention of people with disabilities — advocates are keen to ensure these ambitions translate into national and regional policy changes and tangible reforms.

Approximately 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability, and while nearly 90 percent of countries have now signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, advocates say that people with disabilities are still systematically excluded from health, education, and other services, caught in a cycle of disability, poverty, and vulnerability. Women with disabilities are also at a higher risk of violence and sexual assault, they say.

Tackling this problem is the subject of a two-day conference, starting Monday, which will bring together nearly 200 participants from African and international research institutes and disability organizations, as well as leading experts and representatives from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

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Organized by U.K. charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, the event will showcase findings from a three-year research project funded by DFID and the Economic and Social Research Council, looking at why policies in four African countries — Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zambia — are failing to meet the needs of people with disabilities and what can be done to bridge the gap between policy formulation and implementation.

The project has revealed a gulf in access to services between disabled and nondisabled community members, that development investments are still not disability sensitive, and that existing development programs hardly address disability issues, nor are they covered adequately in national policies.

“Globally, the commitment for disability has been very positive over the last 10-12 years” since the U.N. convention and also the SDGs, according to Ola Abu Alghaib, Leonard Cheshire’s deputy director. But she added that “the challenge is how to put that into practice because we know that millions of children and adults with disability are left behind.”

“Unless disabled people are systematically included in development work, they won’t be miraculously swept along with progress.”

— Judith Heumann, global ambassador for Leonard Cheshire Disability

Alghaib, who has used a wheelchair since she was a teenager, said urgent action is needed to address this, a message echoed by Leonard Cheshire’s global ambassador Judith Heumann, who said that “unless disabled people are systematically included in development work, they won’t be miraculously swept along with progress.” She added that “action is needed on all levels … Everyone is responsible for disability inclusion — not just development agencies or NGOs, people with disabilities are citizens of their countries.”

The conference comes as DFID’s secretary of state Penny Mordaunt seeks to position the department as a global leader on disability and inclusion. In her first public addresses, Mordaunt — a former minister of state for disabled people within the Department of Work and Pensions — said disability would be a focus area for U.K. aid under her leadership, and announced DFID would host a Global Disability Summit in London this July. In a recent interview with Devex, she underscored this commitment and said she wanted “to see DFID continue to work with all of our civil society, multilateral, and private sector partners to keep disability at the front of our agenda.”

DFID minister Alistair Burt was due to give opening remarks at the event but was replaced by chief scientific advisor Charlotte Watts after he was unable to attend. She will be joined by other speakers including the World Bank’s global disability adviser Charlotte V. McClain-Nhlapo, and senior disability specialist at the International Labour Organization, Stefan Trömel.

Technology companies including Google and Microsoft will also be speaking at the conference on the role of the private sector in supporting people with disabilities to engage in the workforce, through technological innovations as well as skills training and hiring. Leonard Cheshire has been working with management consultancy group Accenture since 2008 around job and entrepreneurial skills training for people with disabilities across six developing countries.

Update, March 12: This story was updated to reflect that DFID minister Alistair Burt was unable to attend the meeting as scheduled.

Follow Devex reporter @Sophie_Ed1984 for more coverage from the event.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.