International research on disability should focus on the barriers disabled people face, rather than endless headcounts of how many people there are in developing countries with different impairments, according to a leading disabled academic.
Dr Tom Shakespeare, currently a senior lecturer at Norwich Medical School, and a co-author of The World Report on Disability – published by the World Health Organization and The World Bank in 2011 – was giving evidence to the Commons international development committee as part of its inquiry into disability and development.
The committee heard from three academics, including Shakespeare, with expertise in data on disability and inclusive health programmes.
Among the issues the committee is investigating are whether the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) needs a disability strategy; the adequacy of DfID’s policy commitments on disability and development; and the financial costs and benefits of an increased emphasis on disability.
Shakespeare told MPs on the committee: “What we should be looking at is how many of the new buildings you are building are accessible, how many rehabilitation therapists are you providing, how many of your buses are accessible, so when we are researching disability don’t just count disabled people, count disabling barriers… and it is possible.”
He said this kind of research would help to persuade countries to improve their policies on disability, particularly because of the work of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which monitors implementation of the UN’s disability convention.
He said: “People don’t like to be named and shamed, they like to know that they are doing what’s right.”
He called on DfID to challenge lower- and middle-income countries that have ratified the convention to revise their laws and practices and meet their obligations.
He added: “I think we can share our knowledge, we can support their parliaments and their policy-makers to really work out what it means and how it can be delivered, but we need to do so in humility, realising that in our own domestic situation, when we come up before [the committee], they will have lots of criticisms of us.”
Shakespeare said that researchers had traditionally treated disabled people as an “ethnic group”, when they were not.
He said that what mattered was not trying to identify how many disabled people there were, but researching how countries were “responding to the challenge”.
Shakespeare also said that the disability movement around the world should be “held to account”, to ensure that it included older people, those with learning difficulties and mental health conditions, and women, as well as “the poorest of the poor, the rural folk, and all the rest of it”.
He said: “The disability movement rightly challenges DfID and DfID also needs to challenge the disability movement, to ensure it maintains that representativeness, because disability is hugely diverse.”
Shakespeare said that DfID should take a twin-track approach to disability, ensuring its mainstream work was inclusive of disabled people – for example, through making sure that any new buildings were accessible – but also carrying out some “targeted work, to understand the specific issues that face disabled people”.
Estimates suggest there are more than one billion disabled people, but less than four per cent of them benefit from international development assistance.
The UN has warned that global development targets will be missed without a greater focus on disabled people.
It is thought that more than half of disabled people in low-income countries cannot afford healthcare, and that almost 90 per cent of disabled children in Africa do not go to school.
22 January 2014