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Including Disability in All Aspects of Development

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22 January 2016

The inclusion of disability in the Sustainable Development Goals is a breakthrough for the billion people around the world who experience some form of disability. Four-fifths live in developing countries, and although they are amongst the poorest, they often find their needs ignored by local governments and aid programmes alike. The challenge ahead for the EU and its partners is to bring the spirit of the SDGs into the detail of aid programming.

“The principal obstacle is that disability is not visible,” said María Jesús Varela Méndez, general director of the ONCE Foundation for Latin America. Speaking at the ‘Leave No One Behind’ conference in Brussels, she urged donor agencies to include disabled people in all aspects of cooperation.

“There are different budgets within cooperation, for example to improve education, or to boost employment - but they don’t include people with disabilities,” said Varela Méndez. “If we always separate disability from the rest of cooperation, people with disabilities will never be included in programmes.”



The EU joined the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2011, making it a legal obligation to include people with disabilities. The EU has since been working to ensure that their political, social and economic rights are reflected in all its policies and programmes.

The UN’s first report on the EU’s progress recognised that the EU increasingly includes “the rights of persons with disabilities in the financing of its external actions”. It also acknowledged the EU’s prioritisation of disability in its 2030 Agenda communication, and its commitment to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which includes persons with disabilities.

But there is much to be done – first and foremost, making disability a mainstream issue across all development policy. The UN called for the EU to adopt a “systematic” approach to disability in its programmes; to appoint disability ‘focal points’ in relevant institutions; and to set up a monitoring framework with better data on disability.

These recommendations were described as a “wake-up call” by Klaus Rudischhauser, deputy director general of DEVCO, the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development. He acknowledged that development practitioners are faced with a growing number of targets. “We are asked to mainstream issues such as gender, climate change and now disability in all our external action,” he said. “We are committed, but it’s not easy to integrate these into every project.”

His commitment echoed Commissioner Neven Mimica's opening speech at the ‘Leave No One Behind’ conference: 



At Rudischhauser’s invitation, the ‘Leave No One Behind’ conference distilled 10 action points for the EU to consider in its development policies. Click here to view the detailed plan. 
  1. Develop a work plan to implement and monitor progress between now and the next CRPD review of the EU
  2. Promote an inclusive society through awareness raising campaigns, publications and events 
  3. Build EU organisational capacity to ensure all 2030 Agenda initiatives include persons with disabilities 
  4. Use the EU’s influence at all opportunities to create political commitment to the rights of persons with disabilities
  5. Ensure all programmes, projects and initiatives are inclusive and accessible
  6. Invest in gathering disaggregated data
  7. Participation and empowerment of Disabled Persons’ Organisations 
  8. Accessibility should be guaranteed in all the EU’s external actions
  9. Ensure that all the work done by the EU in the field of human rights fully incorporates the rights of persons with disabilities
  10. Facilitate good practice and knowledge sharing - from the EU, EU member states and partner governments own programmes, and between countries

The efforts to include a disability criterion in all aspects of donors’ development aid are in line with the demand for national governments to adopt inclusive policies. Local disabled persons’ organisations (DPOs) in developing countries are increasingly forming regional partnerships to hold governments to account. Many of these are supported by the EU, which is supporting projects focusing on disability rights and inclusion in over 87 countries.

“We are convinced that the most important thing to get influence with the states is the union of DPOs,” said Varela Méndez. “In Latin America, DPOs are really small and separated, but in some countries they are working together, step by step. It’s when you speak with one voice that you can have discussions with the government.”

In Africa, national, sub-regional and continental DPOs came together last year to form the Africa Disability Forum, with the goal of changing public attitudes towards disability. This is key to achieving inclusive policies, which are often signed by governments, but held back by negative attitudes at the implementation level.

For example, the majority of African nations have ratified the CRPD, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability and promotes equal access to health, justice, education, employment and social protection. “In reality there has been little impact,” said Alzouma Maiga Idriss, Vice-Chair of the Africa Disability Forum. “It’s as if they don’t know what they signed.”

Idriss recounted how Niger’s ministry dealing with disability policies is located on an upper floor of a building without wheelchair access - “so we cannot even go to ask for our rights.”



“The challenge is changing attitudes,” said Hellen Grace Asamo, member of the Ugandan parliament. “We are trying to ensure the government comes up with inclusive planning and programming, for example in education policy and in health. Sometimes the people implementing government policy have old-fashioned ideas that they know better than the disabled people.”

“The handicap is in the minds of our politicians,” said Idriss. “For things to change in Africa, we need support – and pressure – from outside.”


Securing this support on a long-term basis requires the underpinning of better data on disability. “What you cannot measure will not get done,” said Alexander Cote, Programme Officer at the International Disability Alliance.

Development aid is continuously monitored to assess its impact and ensure funds are allocated efficiently. Disability has been conspicuously absent from the indicators used to measure progress; it did not feature once in the indicators for the Millennium Development Goals. With the SDGs, this is about to change.

A team of experts is developing indicators to be presented in March. Data will be disaggregated not only by the usual sex, age and ethnicity, but also by disability, location, income and migration status.

“Disabled people are often discriminated against, they are often invisible - they’ve been in different schools – and so we need indicators to monitor that they are also participating actively in sustainable development and they also benefit from it,” said Ulrike Last, Technical Advisor at Handicap International.



“That’s why we need to disaggregate data by these groups and populations, otherwise we just improve the situations of those who are already doing well, and that’s what some people argue happened with the MDGs.”

“If you have better data, in the majority of cases, you will be able to make better policies and better service planning,” said Last. The other ingredients are political and public will. The inclusion of disability in the 2030 Agenda, and ongoing discussions on including disability in all aspects of development policy, are promising signs.


Disability and Development Network

Further reading & viewing

Voices & Views on Disability and Development, February 2015

Alzouma Maiga Idrisson Education (video)

Thorkild Olesen on Denmark's progress implementing the CRPD (video)

UN 2030 Agenda - See 74 (g) for disaggregated data

UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities

An Ordinary Girl with an Extraordinary Will (video) – highlighting EU disability work in Lebanon

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Alicia Martin Diaz from DEVCO, with support from the Coordination Team.


Image Credit: UNAMID Creative Commons license

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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