Next Monday, December 3, the world will observe International Day of Persons with Disabilities, an observance by the United Nations "to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of people with disabilities."
The theme, "Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all," is in keeping with what the UN and advocates globally, hope is a foremost shift in understanding and responses towards disability.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted in 2006, aims to "promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity."
It also seeks to "increase awareness of gains to be derived from the inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of life", all of which are easier stated than implemented in societies and communities, which include the disabled.
Unlike the attention given to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, November 25, or the highly publicised and supported World Aids Day, December 1, World Disability Day barely registers on the world media's radar. People are often unaware of the great number of people living with disabilities around the world and the challenges they face.
The first-ever World Report on Disability (2011) reveals that around 15 per cent of the world's population, or one billion people, live with disabilities. Of those, 110-190 million encounter significant difficulties in their daily lives. A lack of attention to their needs means that they are confronted with barriers at every turn. These include stigma and discrimination; lack of adequate health care and rehabilitation services; and inaccessible transport, buildings and information.
The report recommends that governments and their partners provide people with disabilities with access to all mainstream services, invest in specific programmes for those people with disabilities who are in need, and adopt a national disability strategy and plan of action. Importantly, the report says, people with disabilities should be consulted and involved in the design and implementation of these initiatives.
Some common barriers listed in the report are:
Inadequate policies and standards, which don't always consider the needs of people with disabilities, or existing policies/standards are not enforced. Negative attitudes-Beliefs and prejudices constitute barriers to education, employment, health care, and social participation.
Lack of provision of services- People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to deficiencies in services such as health care, rehabilitation, and support and assistance. Problems with service delivery-Poor coordination of services, inadequate staffing, and weak staff competencies can affect the quality, accessibility, and adequacy of services for people with disabilities.
Inadequate funding. Lack of accessibility-Many built environments (including public accommodations,) transport systems and information aren't accessible to all. Lack of consultation and involvement. Lack of data and evidence.
A human condition
Disability is part of the human condition-almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life, and those who survive to old age will experience increasing difficulties in functioning. Disability is complex, and the interventions to overcome the disadvantages associated with disability are multiple and systemic, varying with the context.
Disability to some is always/only accompanied by images of some visible defect in body or action. The report says, "Negative imagery and language, stereotypes, and stigma-with deep historic roots-persist for people with disabilities around the world. Disability is generally equated with incapacity."
Breaking barriers includes changing/improving knowledge and attitudes as important environmental factors, affecting all areas of service provision and social life. Raising awareness and challenging negative attitudes are often the first steps towards creating more accessible environments for those with disabilities.
It is grievous to experience discrimination from people considered normal, but more tragic is the fact that those who are erecting or sustaining barriers against the disabled are themselves, at some point, going to become susceptible to some form of disability.
As an intellectual with a hidden disability, and an advocate for mental ill-health, I've found the greatest difficulty in getting others of equivalent intellectual capacity to be compassionate or act responsibly. I recall championing a programme to support autism, and it's in that circle I believe I was the most misunderstood-and mistreated, too. I'd look at the zeal which most of my staff, and senior colleagues exhibited in implementing a programme which I designed, while excluding me because I was "too difficult."
It was a case of dismal ignorance of what portends in my disability, and ensuing discrimination and double standards from the selfsame ones who'd been recently enlisted in the cause of the disability that is autism. Who's mission is to enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities through efforts to raise awareness about the magnitude and consequences. I remain hopeful that all disabilities will find support with better education.