Taking Disability Seriously

Why It Is Time To Prioritize Persons With Disabilities in Development Projects

A visually impaired Palestinian girl reads a Braille version of the Koran during a lesson on memorizing the Koran in Gaza City.
A visually impaired Palestinian girl reads a Braille version of the Koran during a lesson on memorizing the Koran in Gaza City, July 12, 2012. (Suhaib Salem / Courtesy Reuters)

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie remembers having to crawl on the ground to enter her school in Ghana because there were no ramps for disabled students. At times, she even had to urinate on the floor; it was just too difficult to make it to the bathroom. Sefakor’s parents understood that their polio-stricken daughter would be out on the streets begging if she didn’t get an education, though, so they pushed her to stay in school. And she did. Today she is a graduate student and Ford Fellow at the School for International Training (SIT) Graduate Institute in Vermont. She also advocates for disability rights, particularly for those held back from education by lack of physical access.

Disability is a national and global issue, and it is time for a comprehensive approach that includes education and development. The numbers are staggering: About 19 percent of the U.S. population -- 56 million Americans -- has a physical or cognitive disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That makes it one of the country’s largest minority groups. Worldwide, the figure is 15 percent -- over a billion people -- according to the World Health Organization and the World Bank’s latest statistics.

Every year, the United Nations holds an International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme this past year was “Break barriers, open doors: for an inclusive society for all.” But that sentiment needs to be echoed every day, not just once a year, if the world is to prevent persons with disabilities from being marginalized or excluded.

For any child with disabilities in any part of the world, the first challenge is often the first step -- literally making it inside a school building without a ramp. From there, the road gets harder. Young people with disabilities everywhere need physical therapy, special equipment and housing, and transportation accommodations. They also need information about new best practices and technologies, from deaf education to community services for those with visual disabilities.

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