The World We Want


March 20, 2016

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I would like to share with you some work that I am doing now.


In September, representatives and stakeholders from all parts of the world convened at the UN in New York for the announcement of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals: a new global agenda designed to take the place of and fill the gaps in the newly retired 2000 Millennium Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs or Global Goals, are an ambitious and aspirational set of 17 target areas which, if achieved through a mix of private, public, and philanthropic measures, will help to ensure a stronger, healthier, more sustainable, and more inclusive world. The SDGs touch on nearly every aspect of social life, including education, poverty eradication, gender parity, employment, energy, urban planning, and good governance, and have been tied to the slogan, “leave no one behind” – a slogan as groundbreaking as it is important.


“Leave no one behind” is an action statement, an imperative that implies correcting some historical misstep or accepting a challenge as yet unsatisfied. The SDGs are characterized by their inclusivity, yet the degree of inclusivity can only be established through subsequent policy measures, overt action, and resulting data that monitors quality of life changes. And, the degree of ultimate success can only be considered meaningful when a more inclusive public mindset and public opinion is and created. For no population or community is this more critical than for people with disabilities: those who have long been marginalized from the global and national agenda, those who have long been left behind.


Most accurately described, “disability” is an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions that affect how an individual interacts with the world. The incidence of disability is estimated to be one in seven, nearly 15% of the global population, and this rate is on the rise as the global population ages and experiences chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental illness. Despite the fact that disability can affect anyone at any time, there is a social injustice and disparity component to it. Disability disproportionately affects conflict-torn regions, as individuals in these countries are more likely to experience war-related, disabling injuries. Similarly disability has been shown to affect people from ethnic minorities, poor countries, and low educational status at a particularly high rate.


What is commonly misunderstood about disability is that it is not just a health-related issue but a sociocultural construct that involves people’s physical bodies and the society in which they interact. For instance, paralysis causes physical limitation, but the level of one’s disability, and subsequent level of participation, also includes social factors, like the acquisition of a wheelchair, ability to receive an education, accessibility of the community, and policies that promote employment. So, disability is a social construct originating with physical impairments that are exacerbated by sociocultural, political, and environmental factors that can make participation difficult. Given the sociocultural component of disability, the SDGs and a new social justice-based global agenda provide the ideal platform to draft and implement creative strategies to reduce the social deficits that people with disabilities face every day. This is an opportunity that global leaders cannot miss.


Of the 17 SDG target areas, seven directly affect quality of life for people with disabilities: poverty (Goal One), health and wellness (Goal Three), education (Goal Four), employment (Goal Eight), infrastructure (Goal Nine), inequality (Goal 10), urban planning (Goal 11), and social inclusion (Goal 16). Each of these areas disparately affects people with disabilities, as they are among the most impoverished, under-educated, jobless, and socially marginalized. The policies that governments adopt to realize these goals, then, must be both disability-inclusive and disability-specific, taking into account as many individual realities as is feasible.


Fortunately, some countries and policymaking bodies have already begun to wade into this arena and have made significant strides in policy that is disability inclusive, disability specific, and highly innovative. For instance, Australia embedded its disability policy directly into its development programming by tying international aid to efforts toward disability-inclusive development such as universal design and accessible schools. Through this initiative, 500 children with disabilities in Samoa have achieved an education they would not have otherwise gotten, 150,000 people in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific gained access to assistive devices, and nearly 1300 schools in Indonesia were fitted with ramps and accessible bathrooms. And, Sweden has broken important ground with its Personal Ombudsmen program, in which ombudsmen provide social support to people with disabilities, offering the assistance needed to allow them to live in the community rather than languish in medical institutions.


The achievement of the SDGs for people with disabilities will require policymaking creativity and innovativeness never before seen on a global scale, with policymakers accepting both the insightfulness and humility to teach and learn from one another. However, it will require much more than that. In order for the true vision of the SDGs to be realized, disability needs to be incorporated into every policy measure and social discussion that takes place. It needs to be as reflexively brought into the public consciousness as is the very notion of any basic civil rights. It is only through these measures that we can upend the antiquated but persistent idea that disability is an aspect of identity people need to be ashamed of and turn it into something from which everyone, every institution can derive benefit. The fact of the matter is that our world is a better place when everyone is afforded the opportunity to be a part of it, and people, themselves, are better as a result. And this needs to happen, not just in the US but everywhere. Despite perceptions and messages to the contrary, society is not made weaker by the incorporation of people with disabilities, and inclusion is not an act of charity. Rather, we are stronger, more secure, and more ready to embrace a changing world when people with disabilities are included. That humanitarian message is at the heart of the SDGs and of “leave no one behind”. That humanitarian message must be in our hearts, as well.



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