Introduction

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which currently guides the developmental activities of all United Nations systems organizations, pledges to “leave no one behind”. In almost all societies, however, persons with disabilities face more barriers to access and participate in deliberative processes than others, and are at greater risk of being left behind.

The recent report of the Joint Inspection Unit of the United Nations System (JIU), entitled “Enhancing Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities to Conferences and Meetings of the United Nations System” (JIU/REP/2018/6) urges that a perspective relating to the inclusion of persons with disabilities and their rights, particularly as it relates to accessibility, be incorporated into all facets of the work of the United Nations system organizations.

Persons with disabilities should have a representative voice, chosen by persons with disabilities themselves, in every platform that has an impact on their interests, for they are best positioned to identify their own needs and the most suitable policies for meeting those needs. In the United Nations system, such deliberative platforms are the meetings and conferences convened.

Making conferences and meetings fully accessible therefore becomes a critical indicator of the willingness of United Nations system organizations to truly “walk the talk” when it comes to non-discrimination and inclusion.

At the start of the seventy-fourth session of the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Chronicle posed a series of questions to JIU Inspector Gopinathan Achamkulangare, a principle author of the JIU report, on the current state of accessibility within the United Nations system and the prospects for addressing the situation comprehensively.

Interview

How does the United Nations define “disability”? What percentage of the world’s people live with a disability?

The most authentic definition of “disability” in the United Nations is provided by preambular paragraph (e) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that “Disability is an evolving concept that results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and active participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

According to the World Health Survey, a World Health Organization-World Bank study implemented from 2002 to 2004, about 15 per cent of the world’s population is estimated to live with some form of disability.

For the purposes of the JIU review, we used these two markers.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly in December 2006, and today, 92 States or groups of States are parties to the Convention. How does the Convention protect the rights and improve the lives of persons with disabilities? What does article 9 cover, and how is it currently applied within the United Nations system?

The Convention has been path-breaking in that it is the first-ever legal instrument that confers on persons with disabilities enforceable rights; it goes beyond measures for their well-being and welfare, and recognizes their non-derogable rights to their participation on an equal footing. The related treaty body—the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—reviews the periodic reports submitted by the States parties to the Convention on their compliance with the provisions of the Convention, providing details about how they have been fulfilling their obligations under the Convention. Assuming that States parties are making determined efforts to do so, the situation of persons with disabilities is bound to witness significant improvements in the coming years.

The Convention recognizes the imperative of enhancing accessibility and devotes one whole article (article 9) to this aspect; it is often described as the “backbone” of the Convention. Central to its framework is application of the concept of the universal design, which makes society accessible for all human beings, not only for persons with disabilities—hence the mantra “essential for some, useful for all”. It goes without saying that the related provisions apply equally to the organizations of the United Nations system, and it is incumbent upon them to develop, promulgate and implement minimum standards and guidelines for the accessibility of facilities and services to those who interact with the United Nations organizations.  

Gopinathan Achamkulangare

The recent JIU report addresses the issue of enhancing accessibility to United Nations system conferences and meetings for persons with disabilities. What are some of the key findings of this report?

The five key findings from the report are as follows:

(a) Formal policies on accessibility are lacking in most organizations but can be developed through utilization of existing guidance documents.

(b) In headquarters locations, most organizations are not providing many essential services to make meetings more accessible. Field office accessibility lags even further behind. For meetings at off-site locations, most organizations neither adequately monitor accessibility provisions, nor set minimum accessibility requirements.

(c) Persons with disabilities and their representative organizations expressed a low level of satisfaction with existing accessibility provisions and outlined a series of corrective measures.

(d) Various other deficits were identified in relation to internal capacity, coordination, knowledge-sharing and accountability on accessibility matters; these have a negative impact on the participation of persons with disabilities.

(e) Overall, progress towards mainstreaming accessibility as a cross-cutting issue in the work of organizations has been limited.

The JIU review indicated that there are no international standards on accessibility that are accepted and used system-wide in the United Nations. What are some good-practice elements in existing policies in certain United Nations agencies and entities that others can take into consideration when developing their own policies?

The JIU review has two annexes that provide useful information in this respect. Annex I provides a list of guidance documents that cover specific realms of accessibility, such as the Accessibility Guidelines for the United Nations Websites, and those for accessible meetings and accessible publishing; Ask It Right: A Guide for Interviewing People with Disabilities (on courtesy, etiquette and sensitiveness); Promoting Diversity and Inclusion Through Workplace Adjustments: a Practical Guide; and the Telecommunications Accessibility Checklist. Annex II provides a non-exhaustive list of international standards for accessibility, most of which are from the International Telecommunication Union and the International Organization for Standardization.

It is pertinent to mention in this context the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights policy entitled “United Nations Human Rights Reasonable Accommodation Policy” (2018), which includes important accountability provisions whereby event organizers are required to evaluate the implementation of the accommodation requested and provide clear justifications for denial. The policy includes provision for redress through which a person who is denied reasonable accommodation can contest the decision before the organizational leadership. The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific has developed very useful operational guides for disability inclusive meetings that should serve as useful referral documents for other agencies.

I would also like to recall here the contents of Chapter III of the report, which speaks of the desirability of having system-wide standards for accessibility.

Does the United Nations provide funding for United Nations system organizations to improve access for persons with disabilities?

I should like to answer this question on two levels. First, funding and costs often become excuses for inaction; we encountered this several times while working on the review. At the same time, many entities have developed creative solutions within existing resources. As we point out in the report, the problem most often is lack of awareness, which is pervasive, rather than costs.

This is not to say that costs and funding do not matter. The report speaks of how an entity has already embarked on an ambitious plan to identify the accessibility deficits and divide them into three categories—short term, medium term and long term. Broadly, the first would be addressed within existing resources (scrounging on the amounts for repairs and maintenance, for example, as many have done); the second by seeking funding from potential donors; and the third by speaking with host country authorities for permissions and funding.  

United Nations Facilities and Management staff remove chairs in the Security Council chamber to accommodate a delegate who uses a wheelchair. New York, 28 February 2019. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

In general, the United Nations Secretariat, the United Nations Funds and Programmes and the Specialized Agencies are individually responsible for accessibility improvement for the offices that fall within their respective remit of authority. Only in cases where various organizations share common premises—such as One UN Houses in field locations—do they share costs for accessibility improvements.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is designed to “leave no one behind”. How inclusive is the Agenda with regard to persons with disabilities?

The Sustainable Development Goals reference disability in seven targets across five goals, while another six goals have targets linked to disability-inclusive development. Consequently, there does not appear to be any problem with the legislative mandate; the challenge is one of implementation and operationalization. Additional factors include the lack of awareness and that of internal coordination.

How has the participation of persons with disabilities in international deliberative processes been hampered in the past? Why is it important to include their perspectives?

A person who has never sat in a wheelchair should hardly be able to tell those who are confined to a wheelchair for life how to address their inclusion. That is where consultation with those affected becomes imperative.

What is meant by “nothing about us without us”?

This symbolizes the obligation of the society to consult the persons with disabilities at every step of the way; it is the most practical manifestation of disability inclusion. Any measure should proactively consult those affected and incorporate their viewpoints and suggestions, aside from the obligations assumed under the Convention.

There are 10 major recommendations put forward in the report. Can you describe one or two key recommendations and how they might improve access throughout the United Nations system?

It would not be prudent to pick and choose recommendations as they address key aspects of accessibility that are mutually reinforcing. There is only one recommendation addressed to the legislative organs and governing bodies, which is for them to include in their agenda the review of periodic reports submitted on measures to enhance accessibility. Other recommendations are addressed to executive heads and call upon them to, among other measures, develop a draft policy on accessibility, appoint an accessibility focal point, provide options for remote participation in all meetings and conferences, and stipulate accessibility requirements for all conferences and meetings hosted offsite.

From your perspective, what would be the most favorable outcome of the upcoming deliberations on this issue?

I pray and hope for a resolution by the General Assembly endorsing the recommendations and asking for their implementation system-wide. However, given our experience over the last five to six years of how JIU reports are dealt with in deliberations, even those reports that have been welcomed widely by the participating organizations, I am afraid that my optimism may be misplaced, unless at least some of the more proactive Member State delegations get together and work diligently towards such an outcome.

If you would allow me a personal note, this has been the most rewarding and satisfying review that I have done in my seven years in the Joint Inspection Unit.

Thank you, Mr. Achamkulangare. We, too, hope for a positive outcome.

 

Gopinathan Achamkulangare is an Inspector in the Joint Inspection Unit of the United Nations System, based at the United Nations Office at Geneva.

 

30 October 2019

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