The health and socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately felt by people with disabilities, and overrepresented among older people and other at-risk groups.
All governments in the UNECE region should adopt an inclusive, human-rights based approach to response and recovery efforts, in consultation with persons with disabilities.
On 3 December, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and we must act for a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.
By Olga Algayerova
Globally, people living with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty and face higher rates of violence and abuse, particularly women and girls. This is unacceptable. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for action to address barriers to full socio-economic participation even clearer. We must join forces for a disability-inclusive future, harnessing multilateral engagement at UNECE and beyond.
An estimated one billion people worldwide live with disabilities. In the European Union, one person in seven among the working age population reports a difficulty with a basic activity – such as walking, seeing or hearing, lifting or carrying, sitting or standing, and remembering and concentrating. Less than one out of two people with a basic activity difficulty are employed, compared to 67% for those with no such difficulty. Many people with disabilities also face challenges to fully access education and participate in community life.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, health and socioeconomic impacts are disproportionately felt by people with disabilities, and overrepresented among the most at-risk groups, especially older populations. Up to September 2020, nearly nine of ten COVID-19 related deaths reported in the UNECE region were among adults aged 65 years and older. This was a key focus of our recent multi-stakeholder discussions and new policy guidance, mobilizing the best expertise from across the region to support more age-inclusive emergency planning and response. We must all scale up efforts as part of a broader push for disability inclusion across all areas.
Civil society engagement led to electric cars being required emit an audible signal at low speeds, reducing dangers for blind and visually-impaired persons.
This is the urgent call made in the UN Secretary-General’s policy brief on a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response. It outlines practical steps countries can take to ensure that people with disabilities are fully accounted for in response and socioeconomic recovery packages, charting a course for an inclusive, human rights-based approach in consultation with persons with disabilities. I urge all governments of our region to adopt such an approach, in line with their commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
On this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, marked on 3 December, let us commit to action for a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world. Unless we factor in disability inclusion across all policy areas and in all sectors, we lose sight of the 2030 Agenda’s fundamental vision for a future that “leaves no one behind.”
Leveraging its areas of expertise, I am proud that UNECE is making significant contributions to the development of norms and standards that can make a real difference for disability inclusion. For example, civil society engagement through the World Blind Union brought the issue of potentially dangerous “silent” electric vehicles to the attention of UNECE’s World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations. This led to the adoption in 2016 of a binding UN regulation establishing requirements for electric cars to emit an audible signal at low speeds, reducing dangers for blind and visually-impaired persons and other vulnerable road users. A further UN regulation covering the construction of buses and coaches lays down the technical requirements to ensure accessibility for people with reduced mobility, including wheelchair users. These norms already benefit millions of people in countries all around the world, and I encourage their even wider application.
Stepping up for inclusiveness means systematically addressing the barriers faced by people with disabilities in our everyday environments. Recognizing inaccessible housing as a critical issue, the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing, endorsed by UNECE, encourages the implementation of universal design principles to increase the usability of homes for all, irrespective of disability status, age, or gender. Addressing another key issue, the Protocol on Water and Health is supporting 12 countries in the pan-European to collect data and evaluate barriers faced by persons with disabilities in accessing water and sanitation services, and to put in place measures to address gaps. And to come back to the question of population ageing, which is particularly critical in the UNECE region, our Road Maps for Mainstreaming Ageing are helping Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova to improve accessibility of transport, housing, health care, and other areas. UNECE’s statistical recommendations further support countries to consider disability as a key domain in ageing-related statistics and to identify indicators on which national statistical offices should collect data.
These are just a few examples to illustrate the strong engagement of countries and stakeholders in our region for disability inclusion, and how their cooperation at UNECE is helping to turn commitment into action. These efforts are contributing to the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy, launched in 2019, which sets out to transform the United Nations System into an accessible and inclusive environment where people with disabilities can engage without any obstacles. As we look to the future of multilateralism as the UN turns 75, strengthening inclusion must be a central priority in all of our work.
UNECE is also making a concerted effort to factor disability inclusion into its meeting planning and working methods. In partnership with our hosts at UN Geneva, this provides great opportunities for common approaches to strengthen both physical accessibility and digital inclusiveness. In our multilateral engagement, maximizing inclusiveness is crucial – both to harness the perspectives, skills, and creativity of all stakeholders to help us address shared challenges, and to ensure that decisions affecting our common future reflect everyone’s needs.
Ensuring the inclusion of people with disabilities also informs cross-cutting cooperation through the regional UN system, including for the ICPD follow-up process to review member States’ progress across a range of population and development issues, and the Issue-Based Coalition on Social Protection. It is also a key dimension of the vibrant civil society engagement in the Regional Forum on Sustainable Development for the UNECE Region, notably through the European Disability Forum (EDF). For our 2019 and 2020 editions of the Regional Forum (held respectively as in-person and hybrid/virtual events), we also made every effort to follow the EDF guide for accessible meetings for all.
In the midst of today’s global crisis and as we look to the great challenges ahead, we have no choice but to work together. We need common solutions that meet the needs of all members of society, and we need broad and effective engagement from different actors. I urge all governments of our region and all stakeholders to join UNECE and the wider UN system in investing in disability inclusion.
The author of this guest article is Olga Algayerova, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).