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Governments and development actors must address disabilities in development research.

When it comes to international development, education, health, water and sanitation naturally spring to mind. But what of disabilities?

Despite the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people with disabilities live in low- and middle-income countries, research and investment in this sector have all too often been neglected.

Despite growing momentum on the rights of people with disabilities, many countries have been slow to implement the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And experts in the field say a lack of data is feeding this inaction.

It frequently falls to civil society organisations to step in with support services for this marginalised group of people, who are more likely to face exclusion from education, health services and employment, plunging them further into poverty.

This Spotlight, published on the International Day of Persons of Disabilities (3 December), looks at some of the technologies being developed to assist people with disabilities in lower-income countries.

In Egypt, an award-winning mobile phone app provides information on accessible buildings and inclusive organisations, while in India innovators are using AI-based software to design prosthetics to meet the needs of amputee labourers in rural areas. Sight charities in sub-Saharan Africa are rolling out glasses with adjustable lenses and lightweight eyesight diagnostic test for use in remote areas.

But researchers stress that unless more data and evidence is gathered on the effectiveness of programmes aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities, real change will be painfully slow.

Hannah Kuper, director of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability, a research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says some countries have been “let off the hook” when it comes to disabilities, because of this evidence void. While there is plenty of information about the prevalence of disabilities, she says there has been little research to find out what works and doesn’t work when it comes to promoting inclusion for disabled people.

The UN made disabilities an integral part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, pledging to “leave no one behind”. But Ola Abualghaib, who heads the technical secretariat of the UN Partnership to Promote the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, admits that even governments that want to take action in this direction lack the evidence to make “transformative change”.

To unlock this crucial research, financial investment is clearly needed from governments, as well as from the major actors in international development.

It is a widely held view that disabilities must be considered a component of every aspect of development, not treated in isolation. If all countries adopted a set of standardised questions developed by the UN’s Washington Group on Disability Statistics, comparable data on disabilities could be gathered from programmes and services in all areas of development. 

Jessica Norberto Rocha, a science communicator and researcher at the Cecierj Foundation, a centre for distance learning in higher education and science in communication in Brazil, believes that people with disabilities should be at the heart of any research aimed at promoting inclusion. However, many people with disabilities in Latin America and elsewhere still remain excluded from science, due to communication and attitudinal barriers.

Addressing the barriers to education for people with disabilities must surely also be prioritised if effective research data is to be obtained.

The theme of this year’s International Day of Persons of Disabilities is “the future is accessible”. But physical barriers are only part of the problem faced by people with disabilities. Effecting change that breaks down all barriers to full participation in society can only happen if governments and funders of development programmes embrace disabilities as an issue that cuts across every area of global development.