Removing barriers for an inclusive society accessible to all

“Persons with disabilities have a significant positive impact on society, and their contributions can be even greater if we remove barriers to their participation. With more than one billion persons with disabilities in our world today, this is more important than ever,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on 3 December.

Commemorated with events and festivities at UN Headquarters in New York, the theme of this year’s celebrations was “Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all.” Following the opening ceremony with a joyful musical performance by students from the New York Institute for Special Education (NYISE), the event included statements by key Government representatives, a panel discussion and the United Nations Enable Film Festival (UNEFF).

Panelists and audience members were invited to discuss strategies to ensure full integration of persons with disabilities in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and setting targets for a post-2015 development agenda. Specific issues of exclusion and accessibility, including removing barriers to education, employment, transportation and sports were also discussed.

The Day’s events culminated with the United Nations Enable Film Festival that included the screening of disability-related films from a wide range of countries and organizations. The films featured diverse stories that challenged stereotypical assumptions about persons with disabilities. They also helped raise awareness about a variety of barriers including lack of accessibility in the physical environment; to information and communication technologies, as well as hurdles resulting from legislation and policy; or from societal attitudes and discrimination.

The event was organized by the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development (DSPD), collaborating with the Governments of the Philippines, Spain and Brazil, as well as the New York Institute for Special Education (NYISE), WHO, UNICEF, the International Disability Alliance, Rehabilitation International and others.

Emmanuel’s dream

Among the speakers at the IDPD event, Emmanuel Elisha Ford, a young student from NYISE, shared his personal experiences of discrimination and made an urgent plea on behalf of all persons with disabilities. Emmanuel, who was born prematurely, is blind and was also diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He related his story about when his mother had enrolled him in a swimming programme to help exercise his arms and legs to enable him walk better, the instructor refused to let him into the pool. Furthermore, when he and his mother tried to get a taxi on the street, they had to wait for a very long time because most drivers were not willing to serve them because he was in a wheelchair. Emmanuel said that he was “hurt and disappointed.”

Despite these obstacles, Emmanuel has a great dream. “I would like to be a meteorologist and even though people tell me that they’ve never seen a blind meteorologist, I am determined to achieve my dream. To everyone listening, be aware, this is an alert, it is very important that we prepare now, because stormy weather is in forecast for people with disabilities. If we do not prepare now, things will deteriorate and more people with disabilities will suffer and die. Please heed the storm warning and put in place laws to protect and respect people with disabilities,” he announced in a concerned tone.

Emmanuel called for laws to protect and respect the 1 billion persons with disabilities in the world today, who constitute approximately 15 per cent of the world’s population. He concluded his statement calling on all participants to take the opportunity of this IDPD event to address the exclusion of persons with disabilities by highlighting the need to ensure their equal access to services and opportunities and by identifying obstacles and barriers to accessibility, worldwide.

Enjoying rights and realizing potentials

The Director-General of UNESCO, Ms. Irina Bokova, stated in her message for the Day that “persons with disabilities remain marginalized today in education systems, and children with disabilities represent one third of all out-of-school children.” She stressed the importance of equal human rights for persons with disabilities, saying, “We have a responsibility to ensure that all persons enjoy equal rights and that women and men are empowered to participate fully in social, political, economic and cultural life.”

According to United Nations Enable website, there is a growing body of evidence and experience indicating that when persons with disabilities are empowered to participate fully in society by removing barriers to their inclusion, their community can better achieve progress and development for all. These barriers are, therefore, a detriment to the development of society as a whole, as well as to achieving the MDGs.

All panelists at the IDPD event concurred that empowerment of persons with disabilities was a key element for development at community, national and international levels, and called on world’s leaders to aim for the development of an entirely inclusive and equitable society. Mr. Srinivas Tata, representing the UN Regional Commissions noted that the investment in persons with disabilities was critical in achieving the future we want. He stated “You cannot treat persons with disabilities as expenditure; they are investment,” Mr. Richard Morgan from UNICEF also added that focusing on this least advantaged group is “a single most effective development strategy.”

Preparations kick off for High-level meeting on disability and development

This years IDPD marked the official opening of preparations for the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on disability and development, which will take place on 23 September 2013 at UN Headquarters in New York.

Some of the panelists underscored the importance of collecting and using available evidence-based data to inform the high level meeting. Ms. Adriana Telles Ribeiro from the Government of Brazil proposed a showcase of best practices and success stories of policy and practices in regard to promoting inclusion and accessibility. She added that it was crucial to showcase these examples in that “they be not only from developed countries but also from developing countries.” Mr. Werner Obermeyer from WHO also suggested that the meeting must ensure the relevant and specific indicators to uncover patterns or trends experienced by persons with disability. “We all know that what is measured gets done,” he said.

Panelists also shared their thoughts on the topic related to the outcome document of the high level meeting. Mr. Obermeyer stated that the impact of the meeting should be to bring a real change in the quality of life of people with disabilities over the longer term. Mr. Tata further suggested that there should be clear guidelines for roles that the different stakeholders should play in regard to the meeting. He urged for a strong and clear mandate about inclusion and accessibility to strengthen the work of all agencies.

Mr. Morgan also provided another critical input, referring to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRDP) by which development programmes and policies should be evaluated. “Every policy, every development programme, every bit of development cooperation has to be subject to that test and needs to pass that test of systematic consideration and inclusion. With costs not being a reason for exclusion. But rather, cost efficiency being sought in order to make the necessary investment in the inclusion and for the rights of persons with disabilities.”

Like many organizations striving to build an inclusive society for all, UNICEF, UN Women and the International Disability Alliance have hosted an online consultation for the post-2015 development agenda on the World We Want 2015 web platform. Running through 5 December, the discussion sought input and feedback on inequalities related to disability.

“I make an earnest plea and call upon all of you to look at people with disabilities as differently-abled,” concluded Emmanuel Elisha Ford in his statement, also encouraging the world community to make the most of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the opportunity offered by next year’s high-level meeting of the General Assembly on disability and development.

For more information

International Day of Persons with Disabilities – Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all (UN Webcast – Part 1)

International Day of Persons with Disabilities – Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all (UN webcast – Part 2)

International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 3 December 2012

United Nations ENABLE

DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development