Speech

Lynne Featherstone: Putting disability on the global agenda

Speech by Lynne Featherstone, Parliamentary under Secretary of State for International Development, on disability and development in Entebbe, Uganda.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Lynne Featherstone

Introduction

Distinguished Guests, Honourable Minister, panel members, Government of Uganda officials, NGO and civil society and development partners, ladies and gentlemen - thank you all so much for being here today.

I’m absolutely delighted the UK and Uganda are co-hosting this important event – and it’s a real pleasure to be sharing this platform with the Honourable State Minister for Elderly and Disabled people.

For far too long the world has been guilty of turning a blind eye to the challenges, discrimination and prejudice that people with disabilities can face every single day of their lives. They have been the people who have been too often left behind when it comes to development. And as a consequence are disproportionately some of the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.

At last, the international community is starting to wake up to the way we have actually neglected disability rights, and is, belatedly, recognising that we can’t tackle poverty without addressing the needs of people with disabilities.

In the UK, I am the Minister responsible for disability within the Government’s Department for International Development, and quite frankly I have made it my mission to ensure that challenges faced by people with disabilities are addressed and are a key development priority.

And I’ve come to Uganda because it is at the forefront of the disability movement in Africa and I particularly wanted to come here to get a picture of what works, and what the real challenges and the real opportunities are for making a difference in people’s lives.

I wanted to get a better idea of what more the UK could be doing on disability – both in terms of our development policies and programmes and also in terms of influencing others on the global stage to do more.

And today I want to set out some of my conclusions; the key challenges that I think we are facing and how we can start to overcome them, both through local action and global campaigning.

Why disability?

But firstly I want to answer the people who, I know, will question this focus on disability and make an argument that the world has a big enough challenge as it is, to provide basic services and opportunities for people. For them disability appears to be a luxurious add on, something that we could perhaps turn our minds to when we’ve achieved everything else.

I have to say to those people: We know that such thinking is completely short-sighted. Disability is a cause and a consequence of poverty.

And nor are we talking about a small minority of people - WHO estimates that one billion people globally live with some sort of disability – that’s one in seven people.

Everywhere they live people with disabilities are statistically more likely to be unemployed, illiterate, to have less formal education and less access to support networks. They are further isolated by discrimination, by ignorance and by prejudices.

Does it have to be like this? No. Given the right opportunities to support and access, most people with disabilities are able to look after themselves and get on their lives just like anybody else.

And I believe it is possible to tackle the stigma around disability by putting people with disabilities centre stage and giving them a voice. And we saw that in the UK last year when London hosted a hugely successful Paralympics Games. It was, I can tell you, one of the most amazing experiences of my life and most people in London’s.

Suddenly people with disabilities were in the spotlight like never before and it really opened eyes to the challenges they face, and also the huge heights they are capable of reaching. Most importantly they were no longer a group on the outside on the margins or hidden away.

Changing perceptions like this is vital. And I am particularly delighted that I have been joined on this visit by Ade Adepitan who many of you may know as a British Paralympian champion and broadcaster. He is incredibly famous, much more than myself. Ade is here to help to get more people talking and thinking about disability – both in Uganda and other parts of Africa as well as back at home in the UK.

Uganda and disability

Ade and I chose to come to Uganda because, as I said, you have played a key role and I pay tribute to the honourable Minister for the promotion of disability rights here and throughout Africa.

Uganda was one of the first countries anywhere to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. You have enshrined the rights of people with disabilities in your constitution, which also recognises sign language as a national language.

People with disabilities are well-represented from parliamentary to village levels. And I know there is a strong disability movement in Uganda which has been fundamental in driving some of this change, particularly the National Union of Disabled Persons in Uganda.

Despite this progress, Uganda still faces a number of challenges when it comes to giving people with disabilities a chance to earn a living and build their own lives.

Over five million people in Uganda have a disability, which is 16% of the population. And poverty and disability in Uganda are impossible to disentangle. According to recent surveys, 72% of people with disabilities in the Northern region of Uganda are living in a state of chronic poverty.

You can often trace the issues back to school where the majority of people with disabilities, especially girls and women, simply find there are too many obstacles in their way to completing their education - indeed even starting their education.

Without the necessary skills they then struggle to get a job that would give them an income. And throughout their lives many of them will encounter prejudice, ignorance, hostility even sometimes from their communities, and families.

Local support for disability

And these problems aren’t exclusive to Uganda, or Africa - this is a global issue. For example there are still too many schools and hospitals in the UK which are not 100% accessible for people with disabilities and discrimination still exists in far too many workplaces.

So what action do we need to take to turn this around?

The first step is to acknowledge the day-to-day challenges faced by people with disabilities and recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.

I’ve seen some brilliant examples here in Uganda of how services can be tailored to fit the particular needs of people with disabilities.

Take the work of Uganda WaterAid. This organisation, which is funded by UK Aid and works with local partners in Uganda, is exploring the barriers that people with disabilities face when it comes to water and sanitation, which quite frankly are the basic tenants of decent living.

For example they spoke to people who have physical disabilities and have been denied access to wells because they are considered to be unclean and so struggle to access clean water.

WaterAid is using these findings to help overcome local prejudices, adapt their water, sanitation and hygiene programmes and build more inclusive toilets and better designed water sources.

I visited Wera Primary School where WaterAid have built a separate latrine for pupils with disabilities. It makes a big difference to pupils like ten-year-old I met who cannot walk by herself and was carried everyday by her father for two and a half kilometers, and was subject to inconveniences and even bullying when she had to use the general latrine. She is now happier at school and socialising better.

And it is things like this can make a real difference to a child staying in school and not just giving up because it’s all too difficult. Of the 57million children currently out of school in the world today, it’s telling that over a third have a disability. It’s not sufficient to just place these children in a school without considering their specific needs.

That’s why last month I announced at the UN General Assembly that the Department for International Development will ensure that all of the school construction we directly support is designed to allow disability access.

During my time here I have also visited the St Francis School for the Blind in Soroti, where their motto ‘disability is not inability’. That it palpably true. This is an incredible school and I’m pleased that St Francis was a direct beneficiary of International Inspiration, a legacy programme for the London 2012 Games that aims to widen access to PE and sports for all children.

One of St Francis’ students won the most determined young leader at the recent UK School Games run by Sainsbury’s.

They have been given computers by the Government of Uganda but they can’t use them because they don’t have talking technology. I have talked to the honourable Minister about what we can do.

Lastly I have seen for myself the benefits of the new grant for vulnerable families in the Kaberamaido district, which is being piloted under the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development and supported by UK Aid.

This programme has allowed people like Margaret Alota, who was disabled by polio at the age of two, to help run a fuel vending business, harvest her crops and support four children through school. A tiny bit of money makes a the difference. I met a young man who used that support to buy a leg.

Putting disability on the global agenda

The people I met are all being given a chance to build a better life despite their disability – but how many others don’t get this opportunity and have their potential wasted as a result?

DFID is determined to keep supporting disability rights through our programmes, and by supporting civil society organisations working on disability, many of whom are represented here today such as Sightsavers and ADD. We recently committed more funding to the Disability Rights fund – the only grant-making organisation to solely and directly support disabled people’s organisations in developing countries.

But these are only the first steps and I know we need to do more. This is a global challenge and it needs a global effort to tackle it. This really has been the great neglect.

Many of you will have heard of the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals for tackling global poverty. Some of these goals have been realised over the last 13 years, but others haven’t and I believe success has been hindered because of the gap where improving the lives of people with disabilities should have been. disability was completely omitted when the MDGs were set up. You cannot address poverty if people with disability are excluded.

The 2015 deadline for the MDGs is fast approaching and the international community is starting to shape a post-2015 development framework.

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to finally put disability on the global agenda and on an equal footing with other challenges.

Our UK Prime Minister was co-chair of the UN’s High Level Panel, which earlier this year presented the UN Secretary-General with a vision of what the development framework should look like after the MDGs expire.

The Panel’s overarching message was that we could eradicate poverty for good but only by ‘leaving no one behind’, regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, race, or disability. If agreed this is a really powerful commitment, which could have a transformational effect on disability rights across the world which have struggled so hard amongst other issues.

To achieve this goal, the report calls for a data revolution, in other words a global effort to collect more quality data about where poverty exists and why. And this will be vital for helping us truly understand the links between disability and poverty and how we can overcome the biggest barriers.

Over the next 18 months the world’s leaders will consider and negotiate the final post-2015 framework and the UK will be doing everything possible to push the UN to take up the core commitment to leave no one behind - I hope you will do the same.

I know a lot of you here have already been involved in this process and it is important you remain engaged and really push to ensure that disability is properly included in the next set of global development goals.

Conclusion

I believe we have reached a watershed moment on disability – we have an opportunity to do something groundbreaking, but we cannot afford to let this chance go.

This is my second visit to Uganda as a UK Minister. The last time I was here was as the Home Office Minister, I saw some of the work that Uganda is doing to address sexual and gender based violence.

And, as I stand here, I really feel a great sense of deja-vu because we are having some of the same discussions now about including disability that we began having twenty or thirty years ago about gender.

Quite frankly we’re not there on gender yet.

Clearly we’ve still got a long way to go on that front, but I am proud of how far we’ve come, and I want to see disability moving along the same lines.

So let’s keep the momentum building and keep working to fight discrimination. We all have a role to play – families, communities and leaders – in ensuring that no one is left behind and everyone has a chance to reach their potential.

Published 24 October 2013