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Shantha Rau Barriga Headshot

Addressing a Missed Opportunity

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Why does the United Nations blueprint for lifting the world's poorest out of poverty not make any mention of people with disabilities? According to the World Bank, 1 in 5 of the poorest people in the world has a disability.

Ten years ago, the United Nations identified eight "Millennium Development Goals" related to hunger, primary education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS and malaria, and the environment. The goals are part of a historic effort to address extreme poverty and measure progress toward its eradication, and the deadline is now only five years away.

Strikingly, these goals ignore the strong link between poverty and disability: many people who have disabilities live in poverty, and poverty increases the chances of having a disability.

In a recent UN report, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon acknowledges that the lack of specific targets for disability in the Millennium Development Goals represents "a substantial missed opportunity." As governments meet this week to discuss progress toward achieving these goals, this oversight can be addressed. The Secretary General challenged governments to ensure that "all [MDG] targets and indicators identify, monitor and evaluate the impact of policies and programming on the situation of persons with disabilities."

In discussions leading up to this week's summit meeting, government delegates agreed to include disability in the document that results from the meetings, in particular with regard to equal access to economic opportunities, employment and nutrition. While this is a positive step, it is not enough.

The key question now is: how can governments integrate disability into the indicators for progress on the goals so we can monitor whether people with disabilities are benefitting? In measuring the population living on less than $1 a day, governments need to make sure that people with disabilities are included and recorded. Likewise, in evaluating the number of children who complete primary school, information on children with disabilities needs to be compiled. According to UNESCO, 98 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not go to school.

Gender equality and the empowerment of women should be monitored not just by reviewing the proportion of women in parliament, but also how many women with disabilities hold these seats. Without specifically measuring the maternal mortality ratio or access to prenatal care for women with disabilities, governments will not truly capture progress on these issues. When determining whether the population has accurate information about HIV, governments need to consider how many people with diverse disabilities are getting this information.

Individuals with disabilities are missing from the Millennium Development Goals for the simple reason that governments around the world do little to measure their numbers or assess their needs. But what's counted counts. Ensuring that disability is incorporated into indicators may seem like a small and bureaucratic step. It is. But it is also a critical step toward the end of invisibility for people with disabilities.