Savina Nongebatu, former president of People with Disabilities Solomon Islands. Photo by: ACFID

CANBERRA — Savina Nongebatu has long been a vocal advocate for the rights of people living with disability in the Pacific. She was the president of People with Disabilities Solomon Islands for seven years until 2011, as well as the female co-chair for Pacific Disability Forum for two years. In 2012, Nongebatu received the U.S. Secretary of State’s Award for International Women of Courage, for overcoming adversity and championing the cause of people living with disabilities in Solomon Islands.

“We need a lot of dialogue and we want to have a say in who does what and why.”

— Savina Nongebatu, former president, People with Disabilities Solomon Islands 

As part of our Development Enabled series, Nongebatu shares with Devex her insights into the challenges for disability advocacy in the Pacific — and the role various sectors, including donors and development organizations, should play.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There is not always a word for “disability” in Pacific countries. What challenges does that create in disability advocacy?

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.

It creates enormous challenges. If there is no word for disability, then you are not looking at the person as a person. In the Pacific, people are often called by their impairment — she is no longer Mary or he is no longer John, even though they do have names. Instead it is “the wheelchair lady,” or “the guy with the bad eye.”

For people with disabilities, it is something we need to fight against. But the phrase “special needs” also creeps in, which we do not like. We are people first. A lot of people have words that romanticize disability too much. But for us as advocates, we would rather you just say “people with disability.”

Unfortunately with our local languages, we don’t have a word for disability. So it’s the “bad eye guy.” And John’s name may not be known for a long time until someone bothers to ask.

This just compounds the discrimination people with disabilities face.

We have a lot of great role models in the Pacific. We have people who play sports and some, like myself, who are advocates. I think having people with disability as role models in the community and the community seeing them and their potential rather than the disability is important to fight this discrimination.

You work has involved supporting the needs of people with disability throughout the Pacific. This region is renowned for the diversity in development challenges — social, economic, health and more. How does the diversity in development challenges impact disability advocacy?

Across the Pacific, each country is at different stages of development. And as most of the services — including wheelchairs, education and more — come from government, this creates challenges.

“Where there is strong advocacy without government support, then we have a problem.”

Across the Pacific, there are good things in some countries where strong advocacy is happening. And that is married by support from the government. The two things need to work together to address the concerns of people with disability.

Where there is strong advocacy without government support, then we have a problem. We can shout our needs to government and service providers, but it doesn’t come. And so people with disabilities suffer. Someone who needs a wheelchair might have to wait for six months.

We have [natural] disasters, now more than ever, — but even humanitarian agencies don’t come in with a wheelchair. So even for them, it is important to be inclusive and think about bringing wheelchairs and crutches. It is also a process we are working through now to help humanitarian agencies think inclusively. When they come in, they can support us. And this helps also to influence our governments to start thinking about having these kinds of things available to us.

We advocacy agencies are trying to be as strong as we can while making our governments accountable to their obligations. And this is a bit easier when you have regional partners as well — people from outside saying what is needed. The Pacific Disability Forum, for example, is very lucky to have partners like CBM who are able to help us along the way — and perhaps making waves at a level that will trickle down nationally.

Disability-inclusive development is important in the global agenda at the moment with the Global Disability Summit and a range of donors developing disability inclusive strategies. How important is it to ensure the momentum is maintained?

The Pacific Disability Forum is a regional organization and we are solely funded by DFAT [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade]. We are most grateful for that. But there is a risk that the flavor today is old news tomorrow.

So, we have to look to other partners in the region but also share the stories of the great work we are doing, including the elimination of violence against women, inclusive education, toolkits on disaster risk reduction. And this can attract other partners.

We also need DFAT to be advocates for us and the work we do to encourage their partners to be able to assist us. DFAT has been great, but some of our members are concerned that activities and programs could be donor-driven because we don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us. That is a risk. While we are grateful, we also need a space where we are frank about our priorities.

What about the private sector — what part can and should it be playing?

The private sector has a big role to play. We have huge telephone companies in the Pacific and banks on every island. We have started talking with the private sector, but it is an avenue we want to do more with.

“As long as your door is accessible and you think outside the box a little, we can show how great we are.”

The private sector is slowly thinking about their role in influencing  — they are not there yet and we need to continue having an open dialogue. But they have an important role to play, including in highlighting our potential. As long as your door is accessible and you think outside the box a little, we can show how great we are. These are conversations we need to have with the private sector.

What are the key messages you have to the global development sector on immediate needs and the role of various partners to support people with disabilities?

The most important thing is being creative — creativity depends on partners. Our diversity gives us the creativity that can be accessed — no two people can see a picture the same, and having us around a table and discussing that with us is the way forward.

We need a lot of dialogue and we want to have a say in who does what and why. Sometimes we are asked how we can be included. And it is simple — invite us to the table.

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

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.