As a report by the World Health Organization indicates, around 15% of the world’s population, roughly 1 billion people, live with some form of disability, making them the world’s largest minority. That people with disabilities remain culturally fragmented, economically confounded, and socially isolated in large parts of the world is a platitude. The three transformative human rights instruments, which constitute the International Bill of Human Rights, belie the values of social justice and equality that they espouse by not making any explicit reference to the disabled.
However, in 1994, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in General Comment No.5, noted that any denial to provide reasonable accommodation to the disabled that results in the impairment of their rights runs counter to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and delineated concrete steps that countries must take for the welfare of the disabled. Further, the declaration of the period from 1983 to 1992 as the UN Decade of Disabled Persons helped galvanize global efforts to create an enabling legal architecture for facilitating the societal integration of persons with disabilities. As a result, many general human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Art. 23), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Art. 18 (4)) as well as special instruments such as the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (1993) and Biwako Millennium Framework for Action (2002) unequivocally recognize the importance of protecting the human rights of the disabled.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is the most comprehensive human rights convention to date on disability. It calls upon all member countries to take substantive steps to ensure full and effective inclusion of persons with disabilities by viewing disability not as an individual pathology but as a social construct. The raison d’être of this Convention can only be achieved if the hopes and aspirations of persons with disabilities are regarded as an integral component of the consultative processes and deliberations that result in the formulation and institutionalization of international development programmes and are not merely included as an afterthought.
To this end, the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda can play a pivotal role in concretizing the principles that the UNCRPD espouses. The Development Agenda can put an end to the invisibilization and ostracization of the disabled that the Millennium Development Goals have helped perpetuate by completely ignoring the needs of 1 billion people.
There are two principal reasons why the Post-2015 Development Agenda must focus on the empowerment of the disabled. First, Article 32(1)(a) of the UNCRPD imposes an obligation on all States Parties to ensure that international development programmes are inclusive of persons with disabilities. Further, Article 4(1)(c) calls upon States Parties to promote the human rights of the disabled in all their programmes. Therefore, a failure to address disability-based discrimination would eviscerate one of the most important strands of all the aforementioned human rights instruments. Second, that disability is inextricably intertwined with poverty, unemployment and countless other social malaise is a fact which is founded on irrefutable empirical data. It has been clearly established that 1 in every 5 impoverished people has a disability. The Development Agenda cannot truly herald an era of inclusive growth unless it focuses on breaking this mutually-reinforcing cycle by putting in place a framework that unequivocally and vehemently promotes the progress of this historically deprived minority.
In sum, a disability-inclusive Development Agenda can act as the ideal starting point to bring about the paradigmatic shift in the societal conception of disability that the UNCRPD envisages and to build international consensus on the need to tackle disability-based discrimination. More important, it can provide a moral and legal foundation to efforts that are aimed at prioritizing disability issues in development discourse and can go a long way in validating the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion.