Feature

Volume 8 Issue 7 - April 01, 2011

Mainstreaming disability: Time to walk the talk

Participants at the seminar
Participants at the seminar

Mainstreaming disability is the key to putting disability issues on the world’s radar screen. Easier said than done. When the so called experts of disability mouth ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’, do they actually mean it? Hard to believe when at most such events people with disabilities take a back seat and professionals tell them what to do and how to do it. Or maybe one or two people with disabilities will take the stage for the sake of tokenism. But it is time to get out of the rhetoric and walk the talk. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. who participated in the seminar organised by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (N.O.R.A.D.) in association with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Disability of the Commission for Social Development talks about the efforts made and how tough a call it is to break the glass ceiling.

For years together now, the movers and shakers of the disability sector have been talking about mainstreaming disability. One big reason why disability issues have lagged behind in the development agenda was/is because disability is being looked at in isolation. When we talk about education, we do not somehow include children with disability; when we talk about health, we forget about people with disabilities; when we talk about women’s rights; women with disabilities are never in the scheme of things. Talk is cheap, or so it is said. What matters is how to do it. After all, over the years millions of dollars have been pumped in by donors into development programmes without ensuring that disability is an integral component of these programmes.

In a bid to find answers to these questions, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (N.O.R.A.D.) in association with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Disability of the Commission for Social Development, Shuaib Chalklen, organised a seminar titled ‘Mainstreaming Disability in the Development Cooperation’ in Oslo, Norway on March 28 and 29. The who’s who of the International disability sector – from major donor countries to U.N. agencies to I.N.G.O.s to Disabled People’s Organisations (D.P.O.s) were a part of this seminar in an endeavour to find out how to convert the talk into action. The two day working seminar was inaugurated by Erik Solheim, Norwegian Minister of Environment and International Development.

Dr. Liisa Kauppinen of the International Disability Alliance and past President of the World Federation of the Deaf set the tone of the seminar with her presentation. She emphasised on the need to include D.P.O.s in all developmental programmes. She also lamented the lack of support towards D.P.O.s and how people with disabilities are left out of bilateral cooperation. United Nations needs to lead by example which is not yet the case, she added.

Bjørg Skotnes, Director, Peace, Gender and Democracy Department of N.O.R.A.D. shared her experiences on gender mainstreaming and drew a parallel with the task at hand vis-à-vis disability. She also highlighted the common challenges and lessons that we could learn from that movement.

Other speakers included Simon Walker, Advisor, Human Rights and Disability, Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Malcolm Langford, Director, Social and Economic Rights Programme, Norwegian Center for Human Rights. Walker spoke about the need for disability to be clarified as a development issue. At times, Governments and others believe they are separate and that development comes first and disability rights after, he added. Walker also said that all programmes under international cooperation should explicitly promote C.R.P.D. Even today several disability related programmes which are actually against C.R.P.D. such as building segregated schools, institutions, etc. are being repackaged as disability rights work. Langford spoke about the issue of accountability and mechanisms that could be adopted - from indigenous ways to existing ones.

Five Working Groups were created on Primary Education, Attitudes and Awareness, Government to Government Cooperation, Multi-lateral Cooperation and Economy and Employment. These Working Groups were to come out with tangible recommendations through their discussions over two days.

A section of the participants
A section of the participants

Expectations from this event were no doubt high. After all, from all international and regional D.P.O.s such as the International Disability Alliance, International Disability and Development Consortium, African Decade of Persons with Disabilities, Disability Rights Promotion International, etc. to aid organisations to Foreign Ministries of countries such as Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark to official development agencies such as Swedish International Development Agency (S.I.D.A.), U.S.A.I.D. and A.U.S.A.I.D., were all there in one room. Not to mention U.N. agencies such as U.N.D.P., U.N.I.C.E.F., W.H.O., I.L.O., etc. However, if the aim was to get tangible action points, there were quite a few disappointments.

No doubt the Working Groups tried hard. But when you have a motley group of people who come with their own field of experience (and baggage!), it’s a tough call. Most of the recommendations, therefore, were generic and more of the old stuff that has been spoken and spoken again ad nauseum. The fact that all the speakers barring Dr. Kauppinen were non-disabled professionals speaks how most agencies are still so strongly entrenched in the old guard.

However, the panel discussion chaired by renowned disabled activist and leader, Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, U.S. Department of State made an attempt to get an overview of the problem and possible solutions. Speaking in the panel discussion, Charlotte V. McClain – Nhlapo, Coordinator – Disability & Inclusive Development, U.S.A.I.D. underlined the need to create political will to mainstream disability. Shuaib Chaklen, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Disability of the Commission for Social Development, emphasised the need to look at the South while talking about mainstreaming. “I look at the world through Africa, for that’s where I wake up everyday,” he said.

Heumann, summarising the discussions highlighted the need to bring up issues of violation to the notice of the top most echelon. “For example, when you see that Embassies of developed countries are not accessible, bring it to the concerned Government’s attention. Write to them and keep following it up,” she said. She also emphasised the need to look out for opportunities where disability could be brought up and gave the floor to U.N.’s Department of Social and Economic Affairs (D.E.S.A.), the World Bank and I.D.A. to speak about their work towards bringing disability issues on to the world platform.

So what is the way forward? Javed Abidi, Honorary Director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.), created quite the stir when he hit the nail on the head. “You cannot mainstream disability until you mainstream disabled people,” he said emphatically.

Another participant also pointed out towards the growing gulf between I.N.G.O.s claiming to work for disability and people with disabilities.

Where does the problem lie then? We cannot talk about ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’ without actually practicing it. The people who can mainstream disability will have to ensure that they are leading by example. Most of the agencies who claim to be doing so are not disabled friendly themselves. They still do not have people with disabilities in leadership roles. Having a disabled person as an employee is at best a cosmetic, face saving gesture that does not really count. In fact, it only reeks of the charity approach that the disability movement has been so vehemently opposing.

Another major factor towards mainstreaming disability is accountability. Till the time donors do not make it mandatory for projects to have a disability component, disability issues will not be mainstreamed into the development agenda. When a programme on education for the girl child is funded, are the donors questioning whether this will also include girl child with disabilities? And if not, it is high time they do so. Or, when a World Bank says they have given 35 million dollars for work on disability in so many countries, how much of it is actually spent on policy level work aimed at mainstreaming disability into the national/international agenda vis-à-vis service delivery and how much of it is spent as overhead costs?

Speakers at the conference
Speakers at the conference

Another question is the age old imbalance between service delivery and advocacy. While the importance of service delivery cannot be over emphasised, neither can the relevance of advocacy be refuted. Long term and over arching change can only be brought about by advocacy and policy level interventions. And till we do not support honest and credible advocacy work, the status quo will not change. To do hardcore advocacy, one needs to have an uncompromised leadership which can never happen if Governments control N.G.O. funding. To have truly independent advocacy organisations, support will have to come from donor countries and bilateral partners working in human rights. We have talked about capacity building for ages, maybe it is time to practice it.

There is an underlying tussle that still continues between non-disabled professionals and people with disabilities that no one wants to talk about. But rose tinted glasses have to be taken off if we are sincere in our efforts to tackle the issue head on. Space will have to be created for people with disabilities to come out in leadership roles. Not only that, agencies such as the U.N. and World Bank will have to invest in people with disabilities and D. P.O.s.

N.O.R.A.D. and the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s office no doubt created a platform where these issues could be spelt out. It has given that window of opportunity where a way forward could be materialised. It is now up to all stakeholders to either grab that chance or lose it like so many others before. Like Abidi said, “It is time to put your money where your mouth is.”

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