Diverse opinions, preferences, and needs are a critical component of international development work, but it is often perceived as difficult to include underrepresented voices. Consider how much more difficult if there are barriers to communicating or attending meetings, as is often the case for people with disabilities.

An estimated 1 billion people around the world live with a disability, and many count on their disability insurance (like a Breeze long term disability insurance
plan) to cover them and protect their income, should they find themselves unable to work in the future. Yet still, people with disabilities experience more poverty and unemployment and have fewer educational opportunities than others.[1]

Globally, around 10% of women have a disability. Yet women with disabilities express feeling “invisible” in the international development agenda.[2] USAID reports that women and girls with disabilities can face “double discrimination” – both sexism and ableism – as well as higher rates of gender-based violence than other women and girls.[3]

To address the barriers people with disabilities face, and to ensure initiatives benefit as many people as possible, the international development community has started to facilitate conversations among its own members.

Despite some progress, the field of international development is not yet fully accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities. Allen Neece, an international disability and development consultant and a specialist on deaf education, has “mixed feelings” about the current state of disability inclusion in international development. “To date, disability inclusion simply hasn’t been on the radar, particularly when looking at the American context,” he wrote in an email.

“Inclusion is taking waaaay too long!” Susan Sygall of Mobility International USA, a disability-led non-profit organization advancing the rights of people with disabilities, wrote last year. Instead, Sygall advocates for an infiltration approach, a more active and assertive form of inclusivity where disabled activists show up at events and programs “even if we don’t have an invitation” as she explained at a Society for International Development-Washington event in 2015.

How can the international development community do better to engage people with disabilities?

In the international development field, conferences, symposiums, summits, and other events are important spaces for knowledge exchange and networking. Whether it is a knowledge sharing event about food security or brainstorming for a new working group, these events are useful for finding career opportunities, disseminating research, and contributing to policies, projects, and new trends.

The 2018 Gender 360 Summit hosted by FHI360 in mid-June 2018 offered an optimistic take of the international development community’s approach towards disability access, particularly its gender dimensions, as well as concrete examples of how the community as a whole can improve inclusivity. There were panelists and presenters with disabilities and American Sign Language interpreter services provided throughout the day. Participants at the Summit reported both in person and on line that they were impressed by the focus on inclusivity and accessibility.

Ashley Holben, a Program Specialist at Mobility International USA, applauded the Gender 360 Summit for exemplifying disability access and inclusion. One of the most important steps the Summit organizers took was “Recognizing disability as part of diversity,” she wrote in an email.

“If disability is only discussed in terms of a medical diagnosis, it is a missed opportunity because so many individuals with disabilities consider disability as part of their identity – a positive part of their identity. Therefore, disability is as much a part of diversity as is gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and more,” Holben explained.

Here are some examples from the Gender 360 Summit on how the international development community can improve accessibility:

Increase funding: “Making a commitment to disability access means making a commitment to funding disability access so it’s available when needed,” wrote Holben. Mause-Darline Francois, a program manager at CBM International, Haiti included budgeting for reasonable accommodations” as one of her tips for better inclusivity. The Gender Summit budgeted to provide ASL translation services for each session.

Holben puts the budget parameters for disability accommodations at 3-5% of the total program costs at the program/project level and at the organizational level 2-3% of the total administrative costs. “Having funds earmarked for disability-related accommodations means that the organization can readily purchase, rent, or hire products or services that facilitate access,” she explained.

Neece agreed: “Another critical need is to anticipate budgets for sign language interpreters. Many NGOs and/or government agencies fail to do so (if not outright ignore or minimize this need) thus reducing or eliminating the involvement of deaf DPOs [disabled people’s organizations].”

Consult the community: Neece writes: “When considering the needs of the deaf, it’s critical that deaf communities and deaf professionals are consulted and provided opportunities to participate and provide feedback, especially when planning projects and in monitoring/evaluation aspects.”

Neece argues that for deaf communities, the issue of accessibility needs to be reframed. He explained “this is a language issue, and not a disability issue. To be succinct, we don’t think we’re disabled. We think hearing people are disabled because they don’t know sign language!” Projects should engage the local deaf community and find out the most effective way to disseminate information, he wrote, “which will invariably require the use of native sign language as the primary modality of instruction and communication.”

Holben noted organizations often fall into the trap of waiting to invite people with disabilities to participate in their work or events since they don’t have “100% perfect accessibility” – which leads to not inviting them at all. But “a successful organization will be proactive in seeking out the disability community (organizations and individuals) and make it known that disabled people’s presence, participation, and leadership are needed and valued.” When it came to the Gender 360 Summit, Holben observed how FHI 360 sought out disabled leaders and also ensured their perspectives were included by having people with disabilities facilitate and present.

Provide accessible networking and career opportunities: When international development events also function as networking opportunities, paying attention to disability access is key.

On a panel on power and privilege in international development Katie Giles, Program Staff and Outreach Liaison for the International Development Master’s program at Gallaudet University, a leading institution in education for the deaf and hard of hearing, noted how difficult it is to network if you communicate in sign language. How do you follow the advice of delivering an “elevator pitch” to non-ASL speakers if there is no interpreter around? Panel moderator Elise Young expressed interest in partnering with Giles on a future accessible networking event. Lack of accommodations for people with disabilities can block them from moving forward in their careers, and thus block them from taking decision-making roles; accessible networking could be one step to prevent that.

Neece noted that “recently the UN has started making a concrete effort to include PWD [people with disabilities] in its recruiting and staffing efforts and I know they’re initiating a program that will enable youth with disabilities to work as interns in field offices.” That program is the Talent Programme for Young Professionals with Disabilities, which aims not only include more people with disabilities as interns and volunteers, but also to build a pipeline to bring in skilled professionals with disabilities to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

The international development community, both donors and practitioners, can address the different needs and preferences of women and men with disabilities. The Gender 360 Summit demonstrated exemplary actions to support inclusivity and create a more equitable space for underrepresented voices.


Photo: Panel at the Gender 360 Summit. Credit: Mary Ellen Dingley 2018.

[1] http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability

[2] http://go.worldbank.org/O14DRFLK90

[3] https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment/women-disabilities