A wheelchair. Photo by: sferrario1968 / CC0

LONDON — As the United Kingdom gears up to host the first Global Disability Summit, campaigners have praised the Department for International Development for improving its own policies around disability inclusion, but say there is more work to be done.

Tuesday will see hundreds of disability advocates, government ministers, donors, and private sector leaders gather in London for the one-day summit, which aims to push disability inclusion higher up the global development agenda.

The summit is a big moment for the U.K.’s development minister Penny Mordaunt, who has made disability a key focus for U.K aid. She announced plans for the summit, which is being co-hosted with the International Disability Alliance and the Government of Kenya, in her first public speech after taking office in November and promised that “as a department, we will put disability at the heart of everything that we do.”  

Approximately 15 percent of the world’s population have a disability and 80 percent of them live in developing countries, according to the United Nations and the World Bank. Activists say that many remain trapped in a cycle of poverty because they are unable to access social services including health, education, and training. This in turn makes it harder for them to find jobs, on top of other barriers to employment such as discrimination and inaccessible workplaces. Getting people with disabilities into the workforce and boosting their economic empowerment is high on the agenda of the upcoming summit.

Yet DFID, and the U.K. government as a whole, has been criticized for not doing enough to boost inclusion in its own workforce. A recent review of DFID’s work on disabilities by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact said the department is not doing enough to ensure its own programming is disability inclusive and called on the department to increase the number of its staff with disabilities. The U.K. government more broadly was also criticized by the United Nations last year, for failing to keep to the commitments of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it signed in 2007. In particular, the report called out the U.K. for missing its target of halving the employment gap faced by disabled people by 2020.

While more pronounced in developing countries, these challenges also affect people with disabilities in the “global north.” A recent study by disability charity Leonard Cheshire found that young disabled people in the U.K. are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed than someone without a disability.

DFID says it has been working hard in recent years to increase its work on disability inclusion and that the ICAI review did “not fully reflect the [department’s] latest position.”

Disability advocates who spoke to Devex agreed that DFID has been taking positive steps, but said there is still more to be done.

According to the disability and development group at Bond, a network of U.K. aid NGOs, becoming an inclusive employer is crucial for DFID if it is to become the global leader on disability inclusion. It is also “the smart and right thing to do,” and will “support DFID’s goals to make their policy and programming more inclusive,” the group said in a statement emailed to Devex.

The Bond working group, chaired by representatives from Sightsavers, Results, and Motivation, said DFID’s inclusion policy could also have benefits in terms of shifting perceptions about disability in developing countries.

“Employing more people with disabilities, particularly in the countries where they work, can also help to shift negative social norms and incorrect beliefs that exist around disability and prevent people’s full inclusion in societies,” the group said.

DFID told Devex in a statement that it aims to hire a “proportion of people with disabilities ... which reflects the U.K. population ... at all levels of the organization,” which would equate to nearly 12 percent of its workforce. The message was reiterated in DFID’s annual report, released this month. A number of U.K. disability groups made the same commitment last year

To get there, DFID has recently introduced new initiatives and said it would be launching an updated Disability Framework later this year, with a clearer vision for mainstreaming disability inclusion within all the department’s activities.

Changes include introducing anonymized recruitment practices for all senior positions, which DFID said it plans to soon roll out across all grades; increasingly targeting people with disabilities through its recruitment marketing; and promoting internships for people with disabilities in partnership with Leonard Cheshire. The department is piloting a similar internship scheme in Kenya with a view to potentially roll it out in other country offices, according to its response to the ICAI review, published in June.

The department has also signed off on a new “workplace adjustments policy” for staff with disabilities; has introduced disability inclusive management courses; and has set up a disability and empowerment network to support staff, as well as specific networks for carers and for staff with children with disabilities, a spokesperson told Devex.

According to DFID’s latest diversity and inclusion report, released in March, the number of staff declaring a disability went up by nearly 2 percent in 2017, bringing the total to 7 percent.  This is below the civil service average, however, which is 8.9 percent of staff.

The diversity and inclusion report only looks at U.K.-appointed staff, who make up the majority of DFID’s more than 3,000 employees. It does not include staff appointed in-country, since recording rates among in-country staff are too low and there are “sensitivities” around recording disabilities and other characteristics such as sexual orientation.

The Bond disability working group said it welcomed DFID’s efforts, referring to a number of “positive sounding initiatives that are beginning [to be] put in place to improve their work in this area.”

Kirsty Smith, chief executive officer of international disability charity CBM, agreed that DFID has made positive progress and that the rising self-declaration rate among DFID employees with a disability suggested staff were feeling more comfortable and supported in their jobs.

She also pointed to areas where improvement was needed, including getting staff with disabilities into higher grade jobs within the department. Currently, far more junior staff declare a disability than those in higher grades.

“DFID has made some really positive steps toward being an inclusive employer and recognizes that it still [has] some way to go,” she said, adding that “it is vital that they demonstrate commitment in their own practices to the inclusive agenda which they are publicly promoting.”

In its annual report, DFID said: “We need to address the concerns of staff with disabilities and work in both the short and long-term to ensure that those with disabilities feel that they are an equal and valued part of DFID. We have worked this year to ensure that we continually improve our offer to those with disabilities within DFID, and for those who wish to join us.”

For more coverage on creating a disability-inclusive world, visit the Development Enabled series here.

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.