Next Monday, as part of the sixty-eighth session of the United Nations General Assembly which opened on Tuesday last, a high-level meeting will be convened on persons with disabilities. Under the theme, ‘The Way Forward: A Disability-Inclusive Development Agenda Towards 2015 and Beyond’, the meeting will focus on what needs to be done to achieve the relevant Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other internationally agreed targets while including persons with disabilities.

When UN member states signed the United Nations Millennium Declaration in September 2000, committing to achieving eight targets (the Millennium Development Goals) by 2015, there was no specific mandate spelt out that dealt with people who are differently abled. If one were to recall, the eight MDGs loosely addressed combating poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women. Perhaps the logic was that people with disabilities are people who experience poverty, hunger and the rest of it like anyone else and no clear distinction needed to be made. But this is only partly true.

The fact is that historically, people with disabilities have experienced poverty and hunger way below the scale of what the poorest of the poor would have been subjected to. Discrimination against women is widespread and people with disabilities face it too. But it is a double whammy for women with disabilities.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a prelude to Monday’s high level meeting that member states had provided demographic information on a wide array of disabilities, indicating that persons with disabilities fare worse than the general population in terms of social aspects and indicators of well-being. Information provided also indicated that, in general, women with disabilities continue to experience a greater burden of discrimination and inequality.

While significant progress has been made over the years, the portion of the average person with a disability still leaves a lot to be desired. This is despite governments having signed on to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. This Convention was envisaged as one that would provide a strong stimulus for the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in society and development. It emphasizes that there should be equal access for persons with disabilities, which would allow them to contribute to and share in the rewards of social and economic progress on an equal footing with everyone else.

Like other policies aimed at changing attitudes to, perceptions of and the way people with disabilities are treated (and this includes Guyana’s Persons with Disabilities Act which was passed in Parliament in June 2010 and assented to by then president Bharrat Jagdeo in November the same year) the signing and ratifying of the convention while well-meaning is largely symbolic.

The tendency to treat people with disabilities as belonging to a ‘vulnerable group’ persists. Social scientists have posited that an overwhelming number of people sympathise rather than empathise with disabled people. Hence they prefer to employ the ‘charity’ approach when dealing with them, as opposed to providing them with education and skills training which would afford them jobs and careers and the opportunity for independence. A study commissioned by the UN noted that the ‘give a man a fish every day’ culture towards people with disabilities was more disabling than enabling, and rather than remove the barriers to development initiatives, it perpetuates them.

The hope then is that Monday’s meeting could prove to be the catalyst that would result in the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in the national, regional and global partnerships that drive the development agenda.