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The UK Will Help Tackle the Great Neglect of Disability

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The biggest disability rights meeting in five years takes place in New York this week as part of the United Nations General Assembly. People with disabilities have long been the forgotten people when it comes to overseas development. This is a landmark opportunity to give them a voice and put their needs centre stage.

More than one billion people worldwide live with disability and suffer huge discrimination as a result. They face unequal access to education, employment, healthcare, social support and the justice system. Consequently, they are disproportionately some of the poorest and most marginalised people in the world - part of an unseen great neglect.

The internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have done a great deal to address global poverty, but the gap where improving the lives of people with disabilities should have been has hindered progress. Thirteen years after the MDGs were agreed, disability remains the poor relation amongst development goals.

This isn't good enough. People with a disability face specific day-to-day challenges that the rest of us don't. They need tailored measures, such as providing school texts in braille. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work for them. It is telling that of the 57million children currently out of school in the world today, over a third have a disability.

That's why I'm announcing this week that the Department for International Development will help address this by ensuring that from this day forward, all of the school construction we directly support is designed to allow disability access. This means building schools with easily accessible entry points, wide entry doors, wide aisles, and ramps with railings and handles. It will also ensure water points have easy access levers and that toilets are designed for easy access. In other words, children with disabilities will be able to access all of those schools.

But this is just the start. With the deadline for the MDGs fast approaching the world has now turned to the post 2015 development framework. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to finally put disability on the agenda.

The UN's High Level Panel, set up to present the UN Secretary-General with a vision of what the development framework should look like after the MDGs expire, have set out that the post 2015 development agenda should 'leave no one behind', regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status. The world's leaders are now negotiating and considering the Panel's vision and the UK is determined to do everything possible to ensure the final post-2015 framework sticks with this single overarching goal.

This week's meeting is a positive sign that the UN is serious about strengthening the rights of disabled people around the world. Drawing international attention to this issue and driving progress will be my key priorities for UNGA. As a global community, we have a duty to safeguard the most vulnerable and if we are to defeat poverty we must tackle the causes as well as the symptoms. In many countries and communities, the barriers people with disabilities face means they have no chance of lifting themselves out of poverty and reaching their full potential.

The Department for International Development is already incorporating disability into our programmes across Africa and Asia, and we have recently committed £2million towards an additional three years support to the Disability Rights Fund - the only grant-making organisation to solely and directly support disabled people's organisations in developing countries.

But we know that at the moment it is hard to even assess the scale of the challenge when it comes to disability because of the lack of sound global data. Quite simply we don't know where disabled people are and what their needs are. So the UK will work with our partners - those with the expertise and access - to get the data we need. We will particularly focus on improving the data on children with disabilities and their special educational needs, and on the data for access to water and sanitation facilities.

But the UK can't do this alone. We will also be urging the governments in the countries we support to deliver on their commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

I believe we have reached a watershed moment on disability - one which we cannot afford to get wrong. Development progress is only as good as the weakest member and progress made across the world is diluted if the most vulnerable are left behind. If developing countries are to move forward into prosperity and greater self-reliance, they must take everyone on the journey. It is up to us, as leaders in the international community, to help them on their way.

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