Elephant in the Room

At the end of September world leaders from around the globe met in New York to discuss the progress that had (and hadn’t) been made towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the set of eight international development targets agreed by all 192 United Nations member states in 2000 and that outline the ambitious overall target of the eradication of extreme poverty by the year 2015. As might be expected, progress towards the goals has been mixed and while there have been some notable advances, the targets are still looking comparatively distant given that there are only 5 years remaining to make them happen. And, yet again and in spite of campaigns from several high profile groups and NGOs, there was one topic that was conspicuously absent from the agenda – just as it is conspicuously absent from the Goals themselves and all their related documentation – disability.

A disabled man begs for money in Quiapo market

A disabled man begs for money in Quiapo market

Of course, I don’t think you’ll find many who will deny that international development should be inclusive of everyone. Nor, I hope, will you find many of the opinion that the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved without including everyone. Of course they can’t, particularly given that people with disabilities (PWDs) make up 20% of the world’s poor. Yet given the intersection of disability with all eight of the issues that concern the MDGs, and the widely cited cyclical relationship between disability and extreme poverty, it seems like a blaring omission that disability is not explicitly discussed. It’s like everybody knows about it, but nobody wants to bring it up – a situation that may seem ironically familiar to anyone who actually has a disability.

But perhaps there’s good reason. If the MDGs are to be truly inclusive, why start singling out disability as an issue? Surely that is, in itself, a form of discrimination? Surely the inclusion of the disability agenda in the MDGs as they exist (for disability issues interact with all of the MDGs) should be taken as a given?

Obviously, this would be a nice ideal, and yes, of course it is important that disability issues are mainstreamed and that people with disabilities are not positioned as an “other” or “less fortunate” group in comparison with “able-bodied” people. After all, most people have what could be termed a disability in some way, it’s just some are easier to correct than others (I would be entirely lost, for example, without corrective lenses of a suitable strength). However, when it actually comes to development as it exists presently, mainstreaming disability is neither an easy nor a common practice. This is because the challenges brought about by disability aren’t just a magnified version of development challenges in general – they are challenges of an entirely different nature that need to be very specifically addressed. For example, MDG 2 is universal education – free primary education for absolutely every child in the world. Programmes that work to address universal education may concentrate on building schools and facilities, training teachers or providing resources. But for children with disabilities the additional challenges of accessibility need to be taken into account if they are to benefit – how will a child who can’t move their legs attend school without a wheelchair?

A wheelchair user is forced to wheel in a busy road

A wheelchair user is forced to wheel in a busy road

How will the same child attend school in their newly provided wheelchair without ramps? How will a blind child use the textbooks that have been provided, or a deaf child communicate with the teacher? These challenges can be addressed and overcome, but only if time, money and resources are strategically invested – and therein lies the point.

The Millennium Development Goals have been heavily criticised for their idealism, naivety and immeasurability, but regardless of whether or not they are realistic, the impact they have had and will continue to have on funding and program priorities in international development is significant. While disability is left out of the explicit statement of the goals, that vital sector is unlikely to receive the funding or the attention it deserves, and the disabled community will be left even further behind in the terms of progress the MDGs describe (at present the sector is already trailing both ideologically and practically in the world of development). If the development community keeps trying to implement programmes to further the Goals without developing a specific plan of action for how disability issues can be tackled in their work, then they risk widening the gap further between the “able” and “differently-able” and creating a situation in which people with disabilities find it harder rather than easier to break out of the cycle of poverty in which they are so often trapped. But unless someone calls out the elephant and disability is explicitly mentioned in the MDGs, it is unlikely that such specific plans of action will be created. Because whether or not the Goals represent false promises, misplaced good intentions or over-ambitious fantasies, in reality they are used as the bar by which development practice is currently set, and that means that unless disability is included now, the chances of drawing close to them ever, let alone by 2015, is very small indeed.

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