A water and sanitation project helped build special toilet for the disabled in Nepal. How can nongovernmental organizations mainstream disability inclusion in their work? Photo by: Jim Holmes / AusAID / DfAT / CC BY

Across the world, 1 in 7 people has a disability and 80 percent live in developing countries. Many people with disabilities face discrimination and stigma in their everyday lives; they often remain locked out of opportunities, and as a result remain locked into poverty.

“Leave no one behind” is now a fundamental principle enshrined in the United Nations’ new Global Goals on sustainable development. And these goals have pledged to reach all 650 million people without access to clean water, and 2.3 billion without access to sanitation — that means making taps, toilets and community processes accessible to everyone.

Everyone means everyone — we all have rights to water and sanitation, whether disabled or not, young or old, no matter where we live. But beyond these high-level commitments, what practical ways can nongovernmental organizations mainstream disability inclusion in their work?

Champion change together

In-country offices can often be bombarded with compliance and progress reports from head office, and as a result, may see disability inclusion as another tick-box exercise. Creating an understanding around its importance is vital to mainstreaming it into the work of NGOs.

The key to change is getting senior-level staff on board to champion equality and inclusion. At WaterAid we found this led to an environment where resources were then devoted to ensuring equality and inclusion, and staff had the space to run with it in their programming.

We carried out training to raise awareness on equality and inclusion across all staff. But it isn’t enough to simply run this once. It must be rolled out again and again; equality and inclusion must be included in every training session and every induction with all new employees and partner staff, so it becomes second nature.

It’s also important to remember there is a big difference between the world views of people in the “global north,” where we’ve had years of disability rights campaigning, and in the “global south” where it is just beginning. For example, during a review of equity and inclusion at WaterAid, we discovered a general lack of understanding of disability as a human rights concept. Many saw it as a physical impairment alone, rather than recognizing that inclusion means addressing the barriers in society that exclude disabled people. When these barriers are addressed, people can achieve more. To overcome this, all staff — including staff with partner organizations — need support to understand the principles of rights and inclusion and then how to put these into practice.

Speak ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ people with disabilities

NGOs often speak “for” disabled people, rather than “with” them. Instead, people with disabilities must have direct involvement in the development of policies. This means they can prioritize the right issues and advocate for themselves. This leads to greater understanding of the issues by decision-makers, and then greater commitment and action for change. We know that partnering with disabled persons organizations, run by and for disabled people, facilitates this.

In Nepal, for example, we’ve successfully lobbied for accessible public toilets in Kathmandu by joining forces with the National Federation of Disabled and the disability working group of the Association of International NGOs. Together we created a series of films highlighting how a lack of accessible toilets impacts disabled people.

NGOs often speak “for” disabled people, rather than “with” them. Instead, people with disabilities must have direct involvement in the development of policies.

— Jane Wilbur, social inclusion specialist at WaterAid

Plan International and the Water, Engineering and Development Centre are also working in Malawi to understand what small changes can be made to a community-led sanitation process to improve their access to sanitation. Early indications of success include a greater representation of older and disabled people, increased confidence of facilitators to creatively promote accessible designs using locally available materials, and more people building their own accessible toilets.

Creativity can also go some way in improving understanding. In Cambodia we’re working with Epic Arts, an inclusive arts group to raise awareness of disability and the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene. Creative arts projects such as music videos and workshops are helping to inspire people to recognise ability, not disability.

Convince policymakers to take action

It’s important to convince key policy and decision-makers to take disability seriously. A few years ago we were told there was no comparative evidence showing the challenges disabled people face in accessing safe water, sanitation and hygiene services, or how to incorporate disability into development. So we began a process of gathering evidence to build a stronger case.

We worked with our partners and communities in Zambia and Uganda, and spoke to disabled, older and chronically ill people to understand the barriers they face in accessing water, sanitation and hygiene services.

The findings helped everyone understand who was excluded and why, what barriers disabled people face and what each party, including people with disabilities could do to resolve these. We presented the findings to a U.K. International Development Select Committee hearing on disability and development. WaterAid's Chief Executive Barbara Frost gave evidence, drawing on our work and her experience in the disability sector.

Ultimately, the U.K.’s Department for International Development agreed to develop its disability framework based on the International Development Commitee’s report. The framework, first launched in December 2014 marked a turning point for the whole development community. It recognized that ensuring people with disabilities benefit equitably from international development is central to leaving no one behind.

Going forward

DfID’s Disability Framework is a huge leap forward in terms of mainstreaming equality and inclusion in the development sector. Such progress should be celebrated.

But many disabled people are still left behind. We all need to continue to push for change, so that disabled people benefit equitably from international development.

As development practitioners we should actively include disabled people in our work. Disabled people have a right to participate in and benefit from development. Their inclusion will help reduce the inequalities that are slowing down progress on the elimination of extreme poverty.

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About the author

  • Jane Wilbur

    Jane Wilbur is a social inclusion specialist currently working at WaterAid. She has experience in developing and implementing inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene programs; carrying out program reviews and evaluations, as well as conducting, analyzing and disseminating research to influence policy and practice.