Poverty and Disability: Why Those on The Margins Can't Be Left Behind

Those living in poverty make up the majority of the world, but their voices are all too often ignored. And few groups of the world's poorest are more marginalized than those with a disability.
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Those living in poverty make up the majority of the world, but their voices are all too often ignored. And few groups of the world's poorest are more marginalized than those with a disability.

The UN General Assembly will debating what steps must be taken to lift disabled people out of poverty ahead of the current UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) deadline in 2015.

This debate offers an important opportunity to examine the issue in a deeper, more fundamental level, and should result in detailed actions being outlined to address and the challenge of ending poverty for those living with a disability. The outcomes should include targets to reduce inequalities that lead to poverty, including access to healthcare, education and safe water and sanitation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 1 billion people in the world today are living with a disability - more than 1 in 7 of world's population. Disabled people have been recognized as the world's largest socially marginalized group and, compared to people without a disability, they suffer from poorer overall health, lower educational achievements, fewer employment opportunities and higher rates of poverty.

A large contributor to this is not the impairment itself, but the lack of services and facilities available that allow disabled people to independently move through, and contribute to, their lives and communities.

One of the key challenges faced by disabled people, especially in the developing world, is lack of access to basic sanitation and the availability of safe water. A WaterAid report has highlighted that most disabled people in the developing world live without access to a safe toilet. The lack of such a basic service has huge implications.

In homes and communities without adequate sanitation facilities, many disabled people cannot go to the toilet by themselves, wash themselves, or even get themselves a drink of water. They often rely on a full-time caregiver. If there is no-one around to help, then people with disabilities even avoid eating and drinking during the day so they won't need to go to the toilet until someone is there to help them.

In developing countries the caregiver is usually an immediate family member. This means that the household is then missing two salaries - that of the disabled person and also their caregiver. In other cases, a child may need to stay away from school to look after a disabled relative.

There are also serious health risks for people who have to use their hands to move across a toilet floor or find somewhere to defecate in the open if they have no toilet, and for those who cannot see where they are going.

When schools, workplaces, health centers, government buildings and transport hubs don't have adequate sanitation facilities then people with disability have no choice but to stay home. It drastically restricts participation in education, health services, and social, political and economic activities.

It doesn't have to be this way. Small changes to infrastructure design such as providing ramps and wide doors, with handrails that people can use to support themselves, can make an enormous difference. Helping people with disabilities be more independent can increase their contribution to society, so everyone benefits. Infrastructure and services that are accessible for those with disabilities should not be thought of as charity, but as part of providing basic human rights to everyone. I have previously articulated this here.

With just over two years before the deadline for the existing targets set in the MDGs, it is vital that renewed focus be given to ensuring that progress is achieved for all - not only those who are easiest to reach. Today's debate in the General Assembly should play an important role in placing the needs of people living with a disability at the heart of efforts to accelerate progress on the MDGs.

What comes next must also be on our minds. The framework to follow the MDGs will be a key issue at this year's UN General Assembly. I believe it is crucial that this framework focus on eradicating extreme poverty in all its forms. To do this it must include a plan to provide access to water, sanitation and hygiene to everyone, everywhere.

This should include targeting efforts and specifically monitoring progress towards those who are the most marginalized, which would include people living with disabilities. If disabled people are not considered in building infrastructure or providing services, any efforts to eradicate poverty will widely miss their target.

The UN's Millennium Development Goals must offer hope to the 1 billion people living with a disability. It is important that the current debate translates directly into action, both in meeting MDG targets and in looking at what comes next. With the right planning, partnerships and goals we can eradicate extreme poverty for everyone, including those who are currently being left behind.

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