Event Recap: Disability Inclusive Development Initiative Workshop

By Kara Eagens

In June, Global Washington hosted members of the Disability Inclusive Development Initiative (DIDI) to introduce best practices for disability inclusion in international development.

DIDI is a multidisciplinary research and advocacy project at the International Policy Institute of the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Comprised of graduate and undergraduate students, DIDI works to support the inclusion of persons with disabilities in development.

Stephen Meyers, a professor of disability studies and international studies at the University of Washington, opened the event with remarks on the realities of disability inclusion within the international development sphere.

“800 million persons with disabilities live in the Global South, where they are twice as likely as the general population to live under the poverty line, yet just under 1 percent of foreign aid reaches persons with disabilities,” he said.

Afterward, DIDI fellows Rebecca Andrews and Jennifer Wood discussed varying conceptions of disability and how they influence the types of strategies created to address the needs of persons with disabilities. They also highlighted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as a key document for the international community’s recognition that the rights of persons with disabilities matter. The CRPD includes numerous rights that are central to development and aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as the right to education, right to health, right to economic participation, and right to equal treatment in all areas of social, political and economic life.

Andrews and Wood emphasized how persons with disabilities are left out of development due to lack of sufficient research and data, the fact that very little foreign aid reaches them, the perceived high costs of inclusion and the underrepresentation of persons with disabilities in NGO leadership.

Next, fellows Jessica Niewohner and Shannon Pierson shared their findings from a case study that assessed the inclusion of persons with disabilities in development practice. Surveys and interviews conducted with NGOs on the West Coast revealed that participating organizations lacked awareness of the prevalence of disability, what comprehensive accessibility entails and disability inclusive development norms.

Niewohner and Pierson noted that non-profits also appeared to view disability inclusion as an added cost that would require specialization. This attitude contrasted greatly with how organizations viewed the inclusion of women and girls in development, who are perceived as clear participants.

“Women and girls with disabilities were not included in this vision of gender inclusive development, and the same logic used to include able-bodied women and girls was not extended to persons with disabilities,” said Niewohner.

In regard to concerns about inclusion’s perceived high cost, she added, “While cost is a restrictive factor for NGOs, it is important to note that disability inclusion efforts should not be seen as an ‘addition’ to development activities, but simply an inherent part of a good development practice.”

Costs associated with inclusion can be mitigated if persons with disabilities are considered at the outset of development initiatives. As an example, the DIDI fellows pointed out that designing a building to be accessible is less costly than adding accessibility modifications to an existing building. There are also new opportunities to receive additional funding by incorporating disability inclusive activities.

The keynote speaker, Alessandra Aresu of Humanity & Inclusion, then highlighted the importance of having an understanding of disability, and the needs and barriers associated with the identity.

“Inclusion is made tangible by actions which improve quality of life, durably reduce environmental barriers and/or develop people’s ability to make their own choices,” she said.

Focused on bringing inclusion from theory to practice, Aresu cited existing resources available to NGOs looking to implement disability inclusive practices. Disabled persons organizations (DPOs) are already situated in the countries in which NGOs operate, and offer the perspectives and experience to help build inclusive practices from the design stage to the monitoring and evaluating stages. There are also specialists, such as her own organization, working specifically to provide disability inclusive training for various sectors of development.

“You don’t need to do it on your own, but you do need to take that step to ask for support externally if you don’t have it internally,” she emphasized.

Finally, a panel of DIDI graduate students, with the moderation of senior DIDI fellow Megan McCloskey, spoke to their respective experiences as women with disabilities doing disability advocacy and research in the Global South.

Shixin Huang, who worked for a disability organization promoting legal mobilization in China, discussed a campaign she participated in that advocated for access to reasonable accommodation in the field of higher education.

“If you want to go to university in China, you need to take an exam. Before the campaign in 2015 there was no kind of reasonable accommodation. If you were a person with a visual impairment, there was no way to get an exam paper in braille,” Huang said.

She went on to say that her organization ended up altering its approach from pushing for legal mobilization to building community relations and raising awareness. Working with people on the ground, and listening to the desires of those with disabilities who were directly impacted, was crucial in determining the direction of the campaign and the ultimate success of their initiative.

Anisa Proda’s research centered on immigrants with disabilities in Albania. These individuals, she said, are “silent victims,” as discussions on the needs of immigrants exclude any mention of immigrants with disabilities, and how their experiences may make for special vulnerabilities.

“This is why recognizing how intersectionality works in this context is so important. These immigrants can come from a disability background, they could come from a conflict-affected area, they can be older persons, women or children,” Proda said.

To wrap up the event, Professor Meyers reiterated how inclusion can be implemented at all levels of development practice, whether hiring persons with disabilities, allocating grants to proposals that are disability inclusive, or teaming up with disabled persons organizations on projects.

“Making disability inclusion a reality is going to come from organizations like us doing it on our own and not waiting for countries to catch up. We’ve got to start making those demands ourselves,” he said.

To learn more about DIDI and its members visit their webpage.