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Building an inclusive society for the disabled

by Noeleen Heyzer

The 2012 London Paralympics captivated the world’s attention with the strength of the human spirit demonstrated by people with disabilities. We were all moved by the determination and perseverance of the athletes to overcome the odds that defeat so many of us.

What we saw at the London Paralympics gives us reason to pause and reflect on the everyday struggles of people with disabilities. Here in the Asia-Pacific region, there are 650 million people with disabilities. They account for 15 percent of the population, but they are mostly unseen, unheard and uncounted.

Evidence indicates that people with disabilities are among the most marginalized in society. The most common reasons are a lack of education and limited employment opportunities.

Having a person with a disability in a household increases the incidence of household and individual income poverty. Likewise, household poverty is more likely to limit disabled people’s access to basic services, education and financial support.

Many lack access to the physical environment, public transportation, knowledge, information and communication technologies (ICT), which are preconditions for exercising one’s rights in an inclusive society. All these factors together result in a greater likelihood of economic and social exclusion.

Another compelling reason for us to pay closer attention to disability is that the population of the Asia-Pacific region is graying at an unprecedented rate.

By 2050, in much of East Asia, one in three people will be 60 or older; in parts of the Asia-Pacific, it will be one in four people. That means significantly more older people in society, with many of them likely to have some form of disability. Indeed, it is projected that, by 2050, 80 percent of the people with disabilities in some parts of Asia-Pacific will be age 60 and above.

That’s why, more than a month ago, Asia-Pacific governments gathered at an ESCAP (U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) conference in Incheon, South Korea, to tackle the existing barriers that prevent the growing number of people with disabilities from participating in economic, social and political life.

The governments launched a new Asian and Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities for 2013 to 2022, and adopted a regional strategy to chart the course of the new decade by adopting the world’s first set of regionally agreed disability-inclusive development goals. For the first time, the Asia-Pacific region will be able to track and measure progress in our efforts to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Referred to as the “Incheon Strategy to Make the Right Real for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific,” the strategy contains specific time-bound goals and targets, among others, to reduce poverty among people with disabilities, improve their access to the physical and ICT environments as well as education and employment opportunities.

The Asia-Pacific region is adversely affected by disasters, and there is evidence that people with disabilities are two to four times more likely than the general population to die when disasters occur. Thus the governments also stressed the need to ensure that disaster-risk reduction and management incorporates perspectives from those with disabilities.

To measure progress in building disability-inclusive societies, it will be necessary for countries to improve their collection of statistics on people with diverse disabilities and their socio-economic status. This would provide evidence on which to base policymaking in support of realizing disabled people’s rights.

It is time to think about how we can reshape where we live, where we work and where we play to enable all of us to enjoy the same freedom of movement and access to all aspects of life.

On the occasion of the 2012 International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let us each do our part to ensure that people with disabilities get counted to count.

Dr. Noeleen Heyzer is undersecretary general of the United Nations and executive secretary of ESCAP.