The UN Day for Persons with Disabilities: How the world is unfair to people with disabilities

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How the years fly by!  Once again the UN day for Persons with Disabilities is with us.  On this day 14 years ago the UN General Assembly declared 3rd December an international day to remember and think about people around the world with all forms of disabilities.

Today is a day to think of how disability is a fundamental part of humanity and how people and organizations should constantly think of disabled people when planning and allocating resources. Whether that is happening is the main thrust of this article.

Over the past 14 years significant improvements have been made internationally for disabled people, including throughout Africa, and here in Kenya in particular.

Most recently the UN Convention on People with Disabilities came into existence, and has so far been signed by over 100 countries including Kenya. It is hoped that within the next two years the ratification of the treaty by 20 countries will make it a new and binding international law, able to protect and to promote the rights and dignity of more than 650 million people with disabilities worldwide.

Welcoming the new convention the former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Anan, said:

 “This is a historic achievement for 650 million people with disabilities around the world. People with disabilities have hitherto lacked adequate protection and I hope that this long overdue convention will mark the beginning of a new era in which they will have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. I urge all member States to ratify the convention and ensure its rapid implementation.”

It is disappointing and even shameful, therefore, that only one African state has responded to Anan’s call for them to ratify the treaty, especially considering that there are an estimated 90 million people with disabilities living on this continent alone.  Indeed Africa, a continent with all the most conducive factors for ‘creating’ persons with disability, such as malnutrition, war, disease, landmines and terrorism, is one of the worst places in the world to be a disabled person.

Africa, more than anywhere else in the world, needs the new treaty to come into force as soon as possible.  However, so far only Gabon in Africa has ratified the treaty.  The majority of African governments, Kenya included, have not put in place any known programmes for the process of ratification and national implementation.

It is not all bleak though.  There are a few examples of successful models and initiatives in Africa to promote disability rights and actively improve the lives of disabled people.  Countries like South Africa, Uganda, Sudan, Lesotho, Namibia, and Senegal are increasingly recognizing the self-representation of people with disabilities in planning and decision making organs, for example.

Some African states have made advancements in getting disabled people into politics.  In South Africa, for example, there are 20 members of parliament with various forms of disabilities.  Whilst Uganda has over 42 thousand councilors and 5 members of parliament with disabilities, as well as having created an entire ministry to address issues and concerns of people with disabilities.

These progressive measures have given disability in those countries much needed prominence, visibility, resources and political good will.  It is hoped that these models became the norm rather than the exception across Africa.

However, in spite of these specific improvements, Africa and the world at large remains grossly unfair to people with disabilities.  So much so that it is not unrealistic to compare the quality of life of a disabled person to that of a modern day slave.

In developing countries children with disabilities, especially disabled girls, are five times more likely to miss out on education compared to their non-disabled counterparts.

Many disabled people continue to miss out on education, training, and employment on account of their disability. A range of obstacles, institutional, social, economic and political, continue to relegate disabled people to the side-lines.

Governments, NGOs and development partners that all claim to support the poor and marginalized hardly ever mention people with disabilities in their budgets, programmes or monitoring plans. Disabled people are virtual orphans in the development system, ignored by the people who are supposed to care!

Even the UN is not innocent of these charges.  It has made limited steps to actually improve the lives of disabled people, although it does continue to improve international policy and legislation on disability.  In terms of developing real structures and resources to achieve the rights of disabled people though the UN has a long way to go.

However, it is not an impossible task.  The UN has shown, in it’s response to the worldwide HIV/AIDS problem that affects close to 45 million people, that it can act quickly and effectively to tackle global issues.  It established UNAIDS as a global secretariat to coordinate international support on the issue, including specific in-country actions with regard to HIV/AIDS.  It has also held summits with heads of states and governments to discuss the issue and actively work to combat the issue.  Evidently, when it wants to it can act.

Why, therefore has it failed to act on disability?  Does it not see disability as an important issue?  Yet how can this be when over 650 million people worldwide are disabled, over ten times the number of people affected by HIV/AIDS?  This is not playing down the impact of HIV/AIDS in the world and the importance of effective programmes to combat it, but it seems a valid question to ask considering the number of people living in poverty as a direct consequence of their disability.

How can the UN justify having specialized agencies and funds on almost every key global issue of today apart from disability?  We regularly hear and read about the state of the world with regard to the environment, children, poverty and women, for example.  But where is the report on the world’s disabled people?  Ignoring disabled people in this manner discriminates against them in a harsh and unjust way.  Where is the fairness in that?

On this occasion, I wish to call on governments, development partners, civil society organizations, the media and private sector players to commit themselves to focusing on disability.  For them to  subscribe to a new perspective that looks at persons with disabilities as human beings with full human rights, talents and potential.

This recognition and focus on disabled people is essential to ensure that the lives of disabled people around the world are improved and to enable them to contribute and play an active part in society.  They should not be shunned and ignored by the world as is so often the case for disabled people today.

Communities and countries that have recognized this fact have scored highly on equity, social justice, governance and overall social economic development.  We can all work to make this world a better place for everybody to call home. As the former French President Francois Mitterrand said, “If we buy into the illusion that we can make this world habitable for only a few, we will make it uninhabitable all together.”  

The writer, a sociologist has a physical disability. He works as a Senior Manager in charge of resource development advocacy and campaigns for Leonard Cheshire Disability LCD, East & North Africa Regional office. Email: