Access: A Common Denominator

Access: A Common Denominator by: Susan Henderson, Executive Director, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

Over the years and around the world, especially in low-income countries, I’ve heard my sisters and brothers with disabilities express incredible frustration with the lack of employment among people with disabilities. Their aggravation is warranted: on average, across the globe, 44% of disabled persons are working, while 75% of people without a disability are employed.

Frequently, responses to this shared experience call for enacting (or enforcing existing) affirmative action policies or quotas in public and private employment, improving incentives for employers who hire disabled people, and training employers to raise awareness, change negative attitudes, and remove stigma around disability. 

I found it perplexing that I rarely heard the issue of physical and sensory accessibility as hindering employment. No calls for enforcement of existing laws regulating physical or communication access or building standards. No discussion of new legislation to remove barriers, or require that new buildings be accessible for people with all types of disabilities. No demands for accessible public transportation.

I was baffled until I realized how daunting it is, when one looks at the inaccessible cultural landscapes of most developing countries, to even consider solutions to the physical barriers that are factors in the despicably low rates of employment (and education levels) for people with disabilities. 

The physical barriers in low-income countries are inescapable. They prevent children with disabilities from attending schools and youth from universities, bar navigation of paths and sidewalks, deny access to public transportation, and effectively create separate and unequal communities. The simple truth is, that access is a human right and can’t be ignored. People with disabilities will continue to be disenfranchised if we don’t raze physical barriers and create access in all these spheres.

Employment is stymied long before we reach adulthood. The center of Kushadevi Village, Nepal, (pictured below) is where family members drop off and later meet their children after school. In the dry season the ground is extremely rocky and uneven, hostile to anyone with impaired mobility or a visual disability. When it’s raining it becomes a riverbed. No access, no education, no college, no prospects for a good job or self-sufficiency.

Image by Susan Henderson   

Image by Susan Henderson


Each day across the world, millions and millions of people take public transit or privately-owned vehicles, like Kathmandu’s minibuses or Nairobi’s matatus, to get to work. And each day millions and millions of people with disabilities are left behind because that transportation is not accessible to them.

Image by Susan Henderson

Image by Susan Henderson

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has been ratified by 166 countries, and 89 countries have bound themselves to the Optional Protocol (as of August 2, 2016). That’s 166 countries that have agreed, per Article 9, to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access “to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.”

Ratifying a treaty is a first step, but curb cuts aren’t going to cut themselves. There are many stakeholders responsible for creating access, and one in particular has the means, knowledge and power to set an agenda for access: international funders.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and others invest billions to support infrastructure in low-income countries. These organizations have the power to require that access for people with disabilities be integral to any capital projects. Unless governments actually start enforcing such policies (Article 9 of the CRPD), disabled people will continue to be excluded from community life, schools, and the workplace.  Disabled people have the responsibility to turn our frustration with the lack of education and employment into action to make sure these institutions have the will.

  1.  Sickness, disability and work: breaking the barriers. A synthesis of findings across OECD countries. Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2010.