Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Irish conference discusses why disability must be embedded in development

by Mary Keogh

Recently, we have heard a lot of headlines about the 7th billion baby born to the world. The exact location and timing of the birth was debated and it was even suggested that we could be past this figure already given the fact that some countries do not register births. What we do know is that this child was born into a world, which comes under continuous pressures to support its growing population. A world where poverty levels are high and millions of people go hungry on a daily basis. There is no disagreement that 7 billion people inhabiting our planet is without a doubt a staggering number.

In June this year, the Word Report on Disability estimated that 1 billion people live with some form of disability and this figure is expected to grow as people grow older and develop age-related impairments. This means 1 in every 7 of us has some form of disability. 1 in every 7 makes disability a significant policy issue for all governments to consider, some would say a call to action to ensure this large population of people is included in all aspects of life. Yet disability remains on the periphery. As a policy issue, it is usually situated in categories such as the socially excluded, or the marginalised or the most vulnerable. There is no denying that all of these categories describe how people with disabilities live their lives on a daily basis in both rich and poor countries. For example, research shows that 98% of children with disabilities do not attend schools in developing countries;[1]that 80% of persons with disabilities of the 1 billion persons with disabilities are estimated to live in developing countries. Similarly, in what we describe as rich or more ‘developed’ nations, disability continues to remain a peripheral issue. From both a ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ perspective, the disability movement is calling for all persons with disabilities to be able to fulfil their capabilities such as the opportunity to be educated and to work and for acceptance in their communities and families. In every country, rich or poor, how this inclusion is realized, depends on how governments and also the wider public respond to the call for including persons with disabilities as citizens.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted by the UN in 2006 provides governments, policy and lawmakers with tools to bring about inclusion for persons with disabilities. With over 105 countries ratified, the political commitment is now there on paper, and the challenge ahead is how to ensure these commitments are put into practice across.

On October 20th, CBM Ireland and the Centre for Disability Law and Policy (CDLP) National University of Ireland Galway in conjunction with Dochas and the Disability Federation of Ireland organised a major conference The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities “Promoting Disability inclusion in Ireland and World “. The conference was designed to bring together a wide range of stakeholders to discuss how nations need to realize that disability is a growth area and that strategies for inclusion must now be sustainable for the long term rather than piecemeal approaches. These strategies for inclusion must not be confined within our own borders but must reach out to other countries that Ireland supports through its overseas development programmes.

The overarching message of the conference was that Irish International Cooperation must be inclusive and accessible to those with disabilities. The conference had a number of distinguished speakers. Ms Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State, delivered the keynote address. Ms Heumann commented that there is a need to acknowledge the disability is unquestionably a development issue and furthermore that if the Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved then people with disabilities need to gain access to changes brought by development money and programmes.

Mr Bob McMullan who served as an MP in the Australian Labour government and who championed the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Australian governments overseas programmes also addressed the conference. Starting with what he called an imaginary country, he gave the audience some stark statistics. This country has up to 500 million people, the under 5 mortality rate is up to 80%; the school attendance is 10%; the literacy rate is 3% and the unemployment rate is up to 80%. These statistics in any country would be unacceptable from a human rights perspective. Mr McMullan went onto explain that while the country might be imaginary, the statistics are true when it comes to describing disability within a developing country.

Mr McMullan, then outlined to conference participants the 10 low cost steps that can be taken to make Aid or International Cooperation more inclusive. These steps are:

  1. Establish reference or advisory group
  2. Review mainstream programmes for compatibility with CRPD obligations
  3. Develop strategy documents focused on rights
  4. Fund DPO strengthening (e.g. DRF)
  5. Adapt scholarship programme for PWDs
  6. Ensure infrastructure programmes reduce barriers
  7. Develop disability focus in volunteer programmes
  8. Establish partnerships with NGO’s
  9. Undertake research
  10. Become a global advocate for the post 2015 priorities

Other speakers at the conference included NUIG Centre for Disability Law and Policy Director Professor Gerard Quinn who commented that “This is a pioneering event at European level which gives space to reflect how regions like the EU and states like Ireland can be a force for good in the world where the vast majority of persons with disabilities live in developing countries.  He went onto comment that  “Good practice from around the world – including particularly USAID – will help us reflect on the positive role of development aid programmes in lifting people with disabilities out of poverty and opening up new opportunities in their lives.  Inclusion does not necessarily require more money – just that existing monies are spent smartly to avoid exclusion and to create pathways into the mainstream.”

CBM Ireland National Director David McAllister called for disability support to be systematically embedded in Ireland’s Overseas Budget. Having been involved in delivering high impact programmes to address the targets of the Millennium Development Goals Mr McAllister talked about his astonishment at lack of inclusion of persons with disability in the mainstream development programmes. He called on all mainstream development organisations funded by Irish Aid to engage with organisations such as CBM to learn more about disability and to work in partnership on creating inclusive development programmes. Mr McAllister’s final remarks concluded by stating that Ireland has an opportunity to be a leader in this field through ensuring that the Overseas Development is inclusive and accessible to those with disabilities. However this inclusion will not happen merely because of legislation or the development of discussion papers. It must be dynamically imbedded in Irish Development Policy for Overseas Development Aid.