What’s next for the (rapidly growing) global disabled people’s movement?

August 27, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Last week I headed off to the Kennington Tandoori for one of those enjoyable food-fuelled brainstorms that seem to happen during the summer lull. This one was with two disability campaigners – Mosharraf Hossain and Tim Wainwright of ADD International. ADD is doing some brilliant work supporting the emergence of Disabled People’s Organizations in Africa and Asia.

ADD is at the forefront of what feels like a coming issue in aid and development. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, is now hurtling (by UN standards) through the process of national ratification (as of August 2014, 147 countries have ratified, and even the US is rumoured to be about to sign up, despite its traditional hostility to convention-signing).

Ratification triggers a process of incorporation into national legislation and policy. As seen previously with UN Conventions on child rights or violence against women, the key to such processes actually making a difference is the presence of social movements on the ground to press for implementation. That’s where ADD comes in – it supports the growing number of DPOs (Disabled People’s Organizations) with funding, advice on policy and international networking. (Mosharraf has spent the last 20 years helping build a dynamic DPOs movement in Bangladesh and has just moved to London to be ADD’s head of policy and advocacy).

The other reason disability is going to go up the development agenda is numbers. The WHO estimate one in seven of the world’s people are disabled, and 110-180 million are severely disabled. In developing countries many of them are among the most marginalized and excluded, often being treated abominably. Unless something changes, the rising tide of growth is going to do precious little for disabled people, so all those conversations about ‘getting to zero’ are going to have to start taking disability much more seriously.

Hence the brainstorm – how to help the global disability movement in its efforts? Here’s a few of the topics we covered:

Widening the alliances. Which ‘unusual suspects’ could be persuaded to back a growing global disabled rights movement? Faith organizations? Which corporate sectors might see a natural fit with the issue – perhaps IT companies that have so much to offer to people living with disabilities?

Celebrity Champions: Who are the Angelina Jolies of disability?  (yes, ADD is already trying to talk to Stevie Wonder ). Steven Hawking too obvious?

Institutional Champions:  DFID is currently leading the way on this (see this recent post). UK leadership is partly why Mosharraf has moved to the UK from his native Bangladesh – the hope is that DFID develop the new policies and approaches that the rest of the aid world can then adopt/adapt.

Academic champions: who is the Richard Layard or Thomas Piketty of disability?

Research: Lots of possibilities here for some bottom up research. How about something longitudinal, interviewing communities and their disabled citizens over a period of years, as Oxfam is doing on food prices? Or use IT to build a network of disabled correspondents who can answer periodic surveys or respond to topical questions? Time for Apple or Google to step up?

Then some strategic questions: should the disability movement go mainstream or build a separate strength? For example, should it be seeking to insert disability issues into other global discussions on education, health etc, or establish disability as a legitimate separate topic for discussion? (lots of efforts to include disability in the post2015 process after it was ignored in the MDGs).

All good fun, but as we left the restaurant, I got a tiny glimpse of the reality of life for disabled people. Mosharraf is a wheelchair user, after contracting polio aged 3. Luckily he arrived early, because he had to go home to get his crutches to be able to manoeuvre over the entrance step and into the restaurant. As we left the waiter, (even though he was a fellow Bangladeshi), he turned to me to ask about the arrangements for getting Mosharraf to the bus stop. Not quite ‘does he take sugar?’, but not far off. Last word to Mosharraf ‘we look forward to meeting you again in some other location, which will be step free and people will be free from prejudice.’ Looks like the Kennington Tandoori just lost some customers.