Intersectionality for Inclusivity: Recognizing the Human Rights of Every Human

By Anna Pickett and Josué Torres


In the context of global development, disability is too often ignored or rendered invisible. Organizations that work to promote equity often times don’t support disabled populations because disability is not one of their focus areas, or because they have other priorities. But the truth of the matter is, if an organization works on human rights without including people with disabilities, they are only really promoting the rights of some humans.

With this work, applying an intersectional approach allows for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how social identities and conditions interact within a society.  As a result, we gain a broader picture of human diversity. In discussing inclusion in global development and improving the standards for living a life of dignity, we must understand the concept of intersectionality and have the awareness that disability is a human condition that is present in a significant percentage of the global population. According to the World Bank, one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability.

Inclusion does not necessarily mean creating a whole new program for people with disabilities, rather it means making already existing programs and initiatives accessible to all, including people with disabilities.

The Case of Migration

Let’s take migration as an example of how disability intersects with a particular social phenomenon. Migration is one of the most complex problems facing the Mesoamerican region (Mexico and Central America) today. Between October 2018 and February 2019, the number of Central Americans who left their homes increased drastically, with over 250,000 Central Americans heading north through Mexico. In February 2019, apprehensions at the US-Mexico border reached their highest level in 10 years.

Forced migration is the result of several converging crises, including unemployment, political instability, violence, and marginalization. People with disabilities, like all those who choose to mobilize, do so in response to these factors, yet someone with a disability may feel their effects more acutely.

In the context of conflict or natural disasters, where people are displaced and fleeing from insecurity and violence, the relationship between disability and forced migration is even more complicated. On the one hand, stigma and violence directed at people with disabilities in Central America create a hostile environment with even fewer opportunities for prosperity; on the other hand, disability can be a consequence of forced displacement, such as when someone loses a limb after falling from “La Bestia”—translated to “The Beast” in English, this is the train that many migrants climb aboard to make their way through Mexico. Furthermore, migrants and refugees with disabilities are marginalized in many aspects of humanitarian assistance due to physical, environmental, and social barriers that prevent access to information, health care and rehabilitation services (ACNUR, 2011).

Working Towards Inclusion

Minimize the Barriers and Maximize Inclusion

Barriers for people with disabilities take many forms, and once we understand them, we can start to mitigate them. Although they are numerous, we identify four principal barriers to inclusion:

  • Physical or environmental: The inaccessibility of streets, buildings, offices, urban spaces and architectural structures, etc.
  • Communicational: The language of an organization may be too complex, or alternative means of communication, such Braille, captioning, or sign language may not be available.
  • Political or regulatory: The rules or protocols of an organization can, intentionally or not, reduce opportunities for people with disabilities.
  • Attitudinal: The stigmas and negative stereotypes of disability can influence the treatment of people with disabilities and decrease their inclusion.

In all aspects of global development and human rights programming, people with disabilities ought to be included. Again, we apply this to migration. Organizations and programs that work in this sphere must include and center marginalized populations, such as those with disabilities:

  • In the distribution of services and information: It is important to ensure that the voices of refugees and migrants with disabilities are at the center of the work of the global development community. We must consult directly with women, children, and youth with disabilities in particular, using creative methods of communication that they find appealing and are in accordance with their specific needs.
  • In planning and implementation: When structuring migration relief and response efforts, organizations rarely identify people with disabilities as a target group or take advantage of the capacities and strengths of their program recipients. It is critical to understand that people with disabilities are more than just recipients and beneficiaries of charitable assistance. Many have values and skills to contribute to their social inclusion and the resolution of the crises in which they find themselves.
  • In recovery and capacity building: New models are emerging for program development that focus on a resilience-based framework, which emphasizes skills, capabilities, strengths and capital. Although migrants or refugees with disabilities are in situations of greater vulnerability, they often have very high levels of resilience and have learned a lot from their circumstances. They therefore have something of value to contribute to the process of integration, recovery, and/or reintegration in the context of migration.

In summary, if we work in an inclusive manner, we can do better work that is more extensive and provide services to more people, regardless of their identity or background. That should be the goal when we talk about the promotion of human rights in global development.

About the Authors

Anna Pickett, Communications and Programs Assistant, and Josué Torres, Administrative and Monitoring and Evaluation Assistant, work together as part of the Seattle International Foundation team. Both live with disabilities and are very proud to have the opportunity to talk about the importance of including people with disabilities in global development. If you have more questions, feel free to send an email to Anna or Josué