With roughly 1 billion disable persons around the globe comprising the largest minority group on the planet, a new initiative is underway to bring equality and opportunity to those too-often shunned in the public sphere.
A recent panel discussion, organized by the World Evangelical Alliance in New York, addressed issues regarding those with disabilities and proposed the framework being considered for the post-2015 Development Agenda.
The post 2015 Development Agenda is the end result of the Millennium Development Goals, created in 2000 when 189 countries signed a declaration to halve global poverty by the year 2015.
Unfortunately, the plight of the disabled was not considered during the formation of the MDG's and so a concerted, parallel focus has turned to helping those otherwise out of the public consciousness.
Of the 15 percent of the world's population that are currently living with a disability, 80 percent live in developed countries, making the lack of action and advocacy on behalf of those with disabilities even more shocking.
But the root of the problem goes much deeper and is interwoven into a cultural perspective regarding the disabled that largely considers those individuals as less worthwhile - who are then not provided the same equality given to able-bodied citizens.
One of the panelists, Venus Ilagan, Secretary General for Rehabilitation International, said that exclusion and segregation at various levels of societal participation hinder outreach of the disabled population and impeded growth. It is not just the absence of wheelchair ramps at public buildings, the lack of transportation options or employment representation for the disabled, but at the core of this discussion was the larger idea of disabled rights being human rights with alleged abuses needing to be challenged and brought to an end.
When asked what was one of the biggest misconceptions that she feels is hindering progress Ilagan simply declared that "the focus should not be on the disability but on the ability to contribute."
Ilgan also advised that discussions regarding the disabled should be occurring early on in schooling, but therein lies the problem; schools are furthering the cultural stigma that is associated with being disabled by segregating students based on the blanket categorization of "disabled."
"In many countries schools are segregated based on disabilities and at a young age those children with disabilities are put in one classroom with one teacher," Ilagan said
Ilagan explained this prevents other children form interacting and developing a relationship with those with disabilities and gaining an understanding that being disabled is just another aspect of human diversity.
Labeling or even characterizing someone as disabled is a bit like putting a square peg in a round hole, the conference delegates were told; there are various types of disabilities, such as developmental, behavioral and physical, in addition to the degree to which a person is disabled. These differences are lost when generalities about people with disabilities dominate public discourse. At the heart of this occurrence is how the disabled are described during social interactions, which can have a major impact when considering the perception one has regarding a disabled person.
UNICEF, for example, uses first-person terminology to refer to persons with disabilities in order to make the person the primary focus and the disability a secondary one. When a person refers to "the blind-child" that individual is negating the value and ability of that person by identifying that person through a disabled label. The description of the person should be "the child with the visual impairment" – always putting the person and not the disability first. The basics of how a person is referred to play an enormous role in the societal perceptions and treatment of those with disabilities.
But just as with any minority population's fight for equality, protection under law is essential. Heather Cucolo is the Acting Director of New York Universities' mental disability program and explained that the incentive for some governments to focus on issues related to the disabled such as housing and employment discrimination to harassment is not there due to the lack of accountability a government is held to by an international body.
With various international courts such as the European Court on Human Rights, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the African Commission on Human Rights all hearing cases concerned with human rights abuse, no such court existed in Asia or regarding the disabled
Disabilities Rights Tribunal on the Asia and the Pacific aims to support the disabled legally but to also facilitate more legislative support in countries within the region lacking such a framework.
The tribunal hopes to facilitate positive change and provide protection for disabled people given many countries in this region specifically "do not have the desire to put a focus on these issues the problem." Cucolo insists that the work done in the region is "to make sure these people's rights are protected."