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Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It’s a day of celebration and challenge for the world to consider issues concerning its citizens with impairments. This year’s theme is ‘Break Barriers, Open Doors — for an inclusive society and development for all’.
A recent SciDev.Net news story reported plans to mentor women in developing countries to increase their participation in science and technology work by providing more funding for qualifications, fellowships and travel to relevant conferences. If science and technology organisations — all the way from schools and universities to workplaces — adopted a similar approach (with government support) to increase the participation of disabled people of all impairment groups too, it would be highly beneficial. Not only for disabled people themselves but also because of the diverse knowledge and life experience they would bring to improve the quality of science and technology outputs, such as research findings and technological solutions.
The article outlined a number of factors inhibiting women from progressing in a science career. Disabled people face multiple barriers too.
Education opportunities are largely denied to them — shockingly only two per cent of disabled children are estimated to attend school in developing countries. [1] This is largely due to multiple layers of discrimination and stigma; from school authorities, teachers, parents of non-disabled children and sometimes parents of disabled children seeking to protect them from abuse in school environments. [2]
Inadequate buildings where research takes place and the ways scientists communicate are other barriers. Steps and small toilet cubicles exclude people in wheelchairs. Science labs could easily be designed to be fully accessible to physically impaired people. Written and visual briefings present challenges to those with sensory impairments. Technical, jargon-ridden language excludes people with intellectual impairments.
A further barrier is organisational policies preventing disabled people securing science-based jobs. For example, many job descriptions require candidates to be “physically fit and able” — often interpreted by recruiters to exclude disabled people.
The gender issues mentioned in SciDev.Net’s report also apply to disabled women, who face the double barriers of disability and gender. I have met many young, disabled women in Africa and Asia who aspire to become scientists but feel they have no prospects or hope of working in the field. 
Mentorship programmes could help tackle some of these problems. For example, they could help promote science-focused education for disabled people and, importantly, challenge discriminatory attitudes in the science and technology sector towards them.
Today’s event has extra significance in 2013 due to the landmark commitments made at the historic UN High Level Meeting on Disability and Development on 23 September. State parties were urged to implement disability-inclusive national development strategies in their ‘post-2015’ agenda work. [3] Including mentoring programmes for disabled people to increase their participation in science and technology work would be a valuable part of that.

Sue Coe has worked in international development for 25 years across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Now a development and disability inclusion consultant, she previously worked for World Vision, Practical Action (formerly ITDG), VSO and Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID). Coe can be contacted at [email protected].


[1] Coe, S. and Wapling, L. Travelling Together: How to include disabled people on the main road of development (World Vision, 2010)
[2] Plan Outside the Circle (Plan, September 2013)
[3] UN High-level meeting of the General Assembly on disability and development (UN, accessed 29 November 2013)