Opinion: People with disabilities are the experts in disability-inclusive development

Australian volunteers navigating the streets of Vientiane, Laos. Photo by: Scope Global

With the right levels of support, people with disabilities make highly effective development workers. Many people with disabilities possess attributes that are actively sought in the sector: They are natural problem solvers, dynamic thinkers, extremely adaptable and resilient, and able to work effectively with limited resources.

“Development organizations must be inclusive of people with disabilities if they are to enable positive social change that benefits all members of the community and fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals.”

— Alexandra Kay, disability inclusion adviser, Scope Global

Since 2008, Scope Global has been working alongside people with disabilities to create opportunities and pathways for them to contribute to international development programs.

We have learned many lessons through mobilizing volunteers with disabilities to developing countries and observed the transformational impact that volunteers with disabilities can have on local attitudes and knowledge toward people with disabilities.

We have continued to build on these early experiences and, today, engage with people with disabilities through a dedicated disability inclusion practice. The practice is founded on a model that challenges perceptions by positioning people with disabilities as experts. It provides employment pathways through which people with disabilities can share their experience with the wider community in Australia and throughout the world. We also employ these experts to provide guidance and advice across many programs that we manage.

Here are five lessons we’ve learned about including people with disabilities in development programs.

1. Catalyze ways for people with disabilities to be agents of their own change

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.

People with disabilities must participate in and benefit from development programs. They must be consulted about barriers that stop their equitable participation in local communities and be involved in program design, implementation, and evaluation.

Disability inclusion advisers have specific attributes and skills in enabling disability-inclusive development and meaningfully engaging with other people with disabilities. This is one of the golden keys to fulfilling positive social change for this group of people.

Following this process — and applying this lens to all stages of program design — can be the catalyst needed for people with disabilities to become agents of their own change and for disability to be mainstreamed into society.

2. Set up reasonable adjustments

Scope Global’s disability inclusion journey began with support from CBM Australia’s development inclusion specialists, and has today grown into a fully fledged disability inclusion practice and an organization-wide commitment to enhancing inclusion for all.

Our belief in the immense value of involving people with disability in their own development stems from experience managing Australian government international volunteer programs for 17 years, including the world’s first peer-led volunteer experience designed for and by people living with disabilities.

We have worked alongside people with disabilities to develop frameworks and processes to enable their full and safe participation in countries such as Laos, Fiji, and Samoa for volunteer assignments up to one year in duration.  

Each person with a disability will have different support mechanisms that work for them. Setting up a reasonable adjustment plan requires close collaboration with the person with a disability and context-specific information about the environment they are going to. Getting this right from the beginning is essential — and is often simpler than first thought, even in settings with limited accessibility standards.

Examples of reasonable adjustments that we have set up for people with disabilities — such as our employees and volunteers in Pacific island countries — include additional allowances for transport; local sighted companions; carer support; accessible accommodation and working spaces, including providing safety equipment if needed; provision of sign language interpreters; flexible working hours and conditions; provision of mobility aids suited to the local environment; and development of accessible communications, documents, and templates.

Reasonable adjustment plans must be flexible enough to respond to changing situations and require a key staff member to manage and be the point of call for the person with a disability.

3. Evaluate and respond to risk

One of the most common questions we get asked by organizations is, “how much risk do we have to take on board?” The development of an individualized and culturally sensitive risk analysis — to complement the individualized support plan — means that controls to limit risk can be discussed and set out from program inception phase.

The individualized risk framework complements the reasonable adjustments support plan and includes additional controls specific to keeping people with disabilities safe in developing country contexts.

Examples of risk analysis and controls that we have implemented include:

• Modified emergency evacuation plans — for example, for a natural disaster.
• Modified safety equipment — for example, vibrating or flashing smoke alarms.
Training on how to avoid opportunistic crime and petty theft.
• Training on how to manage discrimination and negative attitudes toward disability.

Our experts have also developed an environment scan checklist that can be used prior to a development worker with a disability deploying to assist with identifying potential risks.

4. Factor disability inclusion into your budget from inception

Another common question we get asked is, “how much will disability inclusion cost?” If disability inclusion is factored into a program from inception phase and has a specific budget line allocated, then the cost to include people with disabilities is a minimal increase to the overall program budget. It is much more costly if disability or accessibility measures are added to a program at a later stage.

It is also widely acknowledged that when you make a program accessible for people with disability, you inadvertently also make your program accessible to a wider demographic including the elderly, people who are pregnant, and people with acquired injuries. This makes the minimal increase in cost easily justifiable.

5. Use positive role modeling to change ingrained cultural attitudes

We have witnessed the power of positive role modeling and the transformational effect that development workers with a disability can have on local program staff and community attitudes toward disability and inclusion.

Having people with disabilities presenting in the community, contributing to decision-making, and accessing community services as anyone else acts as an extremely powerful role model for people with disability in the local community.

Development organizations must be inclusive of people with disabilities if they are to enable positive social change that benefits all members of the community and fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals. 

We see a great opportunity to link the disability sector and people with disabilities in Australia with our programs and networks in the Asia-Pacific region as a capacity development mechanism, a way to reduce and remove societal barriers and as a way to promote access and inclusion in other organizations.

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

  • Alexandra Kay

    Alexandra Kay is a passionate advocate for human rights and social inclusion of people with disabilities. As Scope Global’s disability inclusion advisor, she provides strategic leadership of disability inclusion and strives to catalyze social change for people with disabilities through her work in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.