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Left Behind: The Case for Disability-Inclusive Development

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Two steep steps. This is what makes it so hard for Amman to go into his school like the rest of his classmates. His school's entrance has no ramp, and these two steep steps leave him no choice but to crawl into his classroom.

Amman, who has a physical disability that limits his movements and speech, lives in a village in the far western region of Nepal. When I met him in 2011, he was 16, yet had just started school two years before, studying in Class 2 with classmates who were nine years younger. He was in school from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, but the school did not have a disability-friendly toilet. If he needed to go to the bathroom during the day, another child had to run home to fetch his mother to assist him. The teachers told him to just stay home if he had stomach problems.

Nepal and many other countries have made important progress toward achieving universal primary education, as part of their commitment to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But because the goals are not grounded in a human rights framework, make no reference to an inclusive and non-discriminatory approach, and have no specific goals or targets for people with disabilities, this group has been left behind as development has moved forward.

The problem is not limited to education. Worldwide, people with disabilities are excluded from development activities and deprived of the benefits of development. For example, in northern Uganda, we interviewed numerous women with disabilities but found only one woman with who had benefited from government development projects mandated to support farmers with disabilities and other marginalized groups. Most women with disabilities we interviewed were not even aware that the programs existed.

It is crucial from a human rights perspective for development policies to make it a priority to include people with disabilities -- but there are also economic reasons to do so. Indeed the failure to educate, train and provide suitable working environments for people with disabilities prevents them from being productive in the labor market.

Likewise, in developing countries where transport is poor and health facilities are located far from rural communities, the people with disabilities and their families have to spend much time and money to reach the services they need. One study in Uganda estimates that when the head of household has a disability, 38 percent of families are more likely to live in poverty. In addition, children in these households attend school at significantly lower rates.

World leaders meeting this coming week in New York should emphasize that a new global agenda for development should be rooted in fundamental human rights, with a guarantee of equality and non-discrimination and specific targets for people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. This means that the post-2015 development framework should include indicators on structural discrimination (such as discriminatory laws and practices by public and private actors), ensure participation of the most marginalized groups, disaggregate data by disability, gender and other factors and ensure accountability through human rights due diligence and public reports on the human rights, social and environmental impacts of both corporate and government projects.

At stake are the lives and livelihoods of millions of people with disabilities and their families around the world, who, like Amman, face steep barriers in trying to leave poverty behind.