OPINION

London summit on disability is call to action

Nic Hailey

Three weeks ago in the Westminster Parliament, our International Development Secretary delivered a statement in sign language for the first time in that institution’s 800-year history, announcing the first Global Disability Summit, which takes place in London today.

The Summit will bring together ministers, government representatives, civil society and disabled people from around the world.

Co-hosted by the UK and Kenyan governments and the International Disability Alliance, participants will agree on a set of commitments, promoting disability inclusion and equality for the benefit of all. 

In the days following her statement to Parliament, our Development Secretary spoke of the overwhelming response she received. Individuals, schools and organisations reached out, explaining that through her actions, they felt she had recognised the status of sign language, their needs, their culture and their concerns. This signal of recognition was so powerful because around the world people with disabilities still feel marginalised in all walks of life.

Kenya has made great progress, and shown great leadership, in recognising the rights of people with disabilities, enacting ambitious domestic legislation and signing up to international commitments. But it remains the case that many people with disabilities in Kenya, as in my own country, continue to feel marginalised, stigmatised, and often misunderstood.

No one country has managed to get it entirely right yet, so we need to work together, sharing ideas and good practice. I hope the summit will help us achieve this, taking us one step forward in realising our shared ambition of a more prosperous world where no one is left behind.

Not only is that the right thing to do for humanity, it is also the smart thing to do. An estimated three to seven per cent of GDP is lost in low-and middle – income countries as a result of the exclusion of people with disabilities from labour markets. So tackling this issue doesn’t just benefit people with disabilities, it benefits everyone.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Take Ali for example. Ali is visually impaired, as a result of which he dropped out of school early, felt excluded from his community and felt marginalised. Through the UKaid funded SPARK programme, Ali received business training, which he put to use, establishing his own kiosk. As a result, he now provides for his family and plays an active role in his community.

Or consider Istarlin, who is also visually impaired. We are supporting Istarlin to continue her education by providing specialist software which enables her to study computer literacy, helping her move towards achieving her goal of working in an office. 

Or Christine, who has a physical impairment as a result of post-polio paralysis. We’re supporting her to access and participate in the literacy and numeracy classes she was so eager to take, by providing accessible transport to school and back and an adapted desk.

These are solutions which support people with disabilities to support themselves. As Istarlin put it: “Having a disability doesn’t stop us from living. We learn and can depend on ourselves.”

In Kenya, the Silicon Savannah, up-and-coming young innovators are also looking at creative ways to support people with disabilities — from the sixth sense echolocation mobility aid listed for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize to machines which produce prosthetics using 3D printers. Technology provides a new opportunity to tackle disability inequality.

The summit will discuss modern day solutions to promote disability inclusion and equality. Its agenda and focus has been shaped by disabled people’s organisations and it will focus on all types of disability, including hidden ones.

It will look at how we can support the education and economic empowerment of disabled people worldwide and will seek to end the stigma that still exists and still prevents so many people from participating in their society and community.

At the end of the summit, governments will sign up to ambitious commitments. During my conversations with disability activists, I’ve heard their thoughts on what can be done to promote disability inclusion and equality here in Kenya, from better data collection leading to inclusive policy making, to better facilities to support people with physical impairments to lead independent lives.

I know the Kenyan government has also heard those thoughts, and is committed to supporting people with disabilities following the summit. The UK government is ready to support in that effort to ensure all Kenyans have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Today’s summit is a call to action, but it is just the beginning.

—The writer is British High Commissioner to Kenya

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