People with disabilities at a meeting at the United Nations. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

This year, the world will undertake its first cycle of review of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In September, member states will come together to evaluate overall progress and strike a chord for acceleration of efforts to achieve the SDGs.

An evaluation of progress and plans for acceleration would be incomplete, if not impossible, without addressing effective inclusion of people with disabilities in SDG efforts. Unlike previous international development frameworks, the 2030 agenda and new frameworks on disaster-risk reduction, urban development, humanitarian action, and financing for development recognize disability as a cross-cutting issue, calling for inclusion of people with disabilities in their goals, targets, and actions.

Devex’s Development Enabled series

Development Enabled explores the daily challenges of people with disabilities while looking at solutions on how to support a disability-inclusive world.

In December, the United Nations published its first ever flagship report on disability and development. The report takes stock of how the SDGs have been implemented to date by, for, and with people with disabilities. The report found that people with disabilities remain at a disadvantage in terms of inclusive development in comparison to those without disabilities.

Various countries, however, have succeeded in putting in place laws and programs to close existing gaps. These good practices can be scaled up with political commitment and adequate resources.

Persistent inequalities

People with disabilities face persistent inequalities in social, economic, cultural, environmental, and political spheres. Gaps between people with and without disabilities vary among countries, but in some, the gaps are glaring. Gaps as large as 20 percentage points in income poverty and 50 percentage points in literacy and employment have been found. People with disabilities are also at a disadvantage in terms of accessing and affording essential services, including water, sanitation, energy, and the internet, and are three times less likely to have access to medical care when needed, according to the report.

Discrimination is a major cause of exclusion of people with disabilities and, in some cases, discriminatory laws and policies contribute to this. Many countries have laws that restrict the ability of people with disabilities to marry, vote or be elected for public office.

Institutionalization poses a separate, but related challenge. In many instances, people with disabilities remain in institutions and special homes, where they are excluded from society, often unable to obtain education, exercise voting rights or make their own decisions, which contributes to social and economic inequalities.

Access to assistive technologies can also be an obstacle. Such access is frequently a precondition to independent living and full participation. Many people with disabilities who need assistive devices do not have them, mainly because devices are inadequate or unaffordable.

Physical accessibility is also problematic. For many people with disabilities, their dwellings can be hindering and transportation and public spaces not accessible.  

Leaving no one behind

To address these challenges and meet the SDGs, governments, as well as international and national development programs, will need to prioritize disability-inclusive development.

1. We need to eliminate the barriers causing exclusion of persons with disabilities, such as discriminatory laws and policies, lack of accessibility in physical environments and ICT, negative attitudes and stigma, lack of access to assistive technology and to health services, and lack of measures to promote independent living.

2. Mainstreaming disability into the implementation of the SDGs is also a must, by prioritizing areas that catalyze progress across all SDGs. Areas of particular importance are social protection, education, employment, and basic services, including health care services, water, sanitation, and energy.

3. Investing in monitoring and evaluation of progress toward the SDGs for people with disabilities is also crucial. Data and research on the situation of people with disabilities remain insufficient. Countries should establish indicators and collect and disseminate data to better assess the situation of and challenges faced by people with disabilities.

Such efforts will not succeed without the commitment of adequate financial resources, building of national capacity, and promotion of necessary partnerships. Ensuring the physical accessibility of schools may have a cost. Revising discriminatory laws requires building legislators’ capacity. Ensuring the accessibility and affordability of ICTs for persons with disabilities may require partnerships between producers, donors, and organizations of persons with disabilities.

The pursuit of disability-inclusive development is, however, not only the right approach, it is a sound investment. Exclusion of people with disabilities results in significant costs to society.

According to an International Labour Organization study covering Vietnam, Thailand, China, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Tanzania, the higher rates of unemployment and labor market inactivity among people with disabilities, as well as the reduced productivity of employed persons with disabilities due to barriers to education, skills training, and transport led to a loss for countries worth up to 7 percent of gross domestic product.

The costs of promoting disability-inclusive development and accessibility should therefore be regarded as an investment in the future, the benefits of which will be enjoyed not only by people with disabilities but also others, including the world’s rapidly growing older population.

Some countries have already made important strides. People with disabilities in Australia find many accessible public toilets; when giving birth, almost all mothers with disabilities in Colombia benefit from skilled health workers; and young people with disabilities in Mozambique can access more technical and vocational training centers because physical barriers, such as inaccessible lavatories, have been removed.

The U.N. and its funds, programs, and specialized agencies are also working to advance disability-inclusive development. The secretary-general recently launched a review of the U.N.’s approach to disability, with improvements planned for 2019; and, the World Health Organization released the Priority Assistive Product List, a guide to procurement and reimbursement policies for countries with limited resources to effectively provide assistive products.

These good practices can be scaled up with political commitment and adequate resources.

By the end of 2018, there were 177 states parties to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified at one of the fastest rates of any international human rights treaty. So we know that the political commitment exists for disability inclusion. But we need to accelerate action on the ground.

The U.N. is committed to supporting governments in realizing the SDGs and leaving no one behind, including people with disabilities.

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

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Amina J. Mohammed

    Amina J. Mohammed is the current deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. She was minister of environment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria from November 2015 to December 2016, where she steered the country’s efforts on climate action, protecting the natural environment and conserving resources for sustainable development. Prior to this, she served as special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Post-2015 Development Planning, where she was instrumental in bringing about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals.