By Noeleen Heyzer
The 2012 London Paralympics captivated the world’s attention with the strength of the human spirit demonstrated by persons 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 of the London Paralympics gives reason to pause and reflect on the everyday struggles of persons with disabilities. Here in Asia-Pacific, there are 650 million persons with disabilities. They account for 15 per cent of the population, but are mostly unseen, unheard and uncounted.
Evidence indicates that persons 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 the access that persons with disabilities have to basic services, education and financial support.
Many lack access to the physical environment, public transportation, knowledge, information and communication, which is a precondition for persons with disabilities to fulfill their rights in an inclusive society.
All these factors together result in a greater likelihood of economic and social exclusion.
What other compelling reason makes it imperative for us to pay closer attention to disability?
Asia-Pacific is experiencing unprecedented population ageing. By 2050, in much of East Asia, one in three persons will be aged 60 and above. In other parts of Asia-Pacific, it will be one in four persons. That means that there will be significantly more older persons in our societies, and many of them are likely to have some form of disability. Indeed, it is projected that by 2050, 80 per cent of the population of persons with disabilities in some parts of Asia-Pacific will be older persons aged 60 and above.
That is why a month ago, Governments of Asia and the Pacific gathered at an ESCAP conference in Incheon, Republic of Korea, to tackle the existing barriers that prevent the growing number of persons with disabilities from participating in economic, social and political life.
The Governments launched a new Asian and Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities for the period 2013 to 2022. They also 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 Asian and Pacific region will be able to track and measure progress in our efforts to improve the quality of life of persons 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 persons with disabilities, improve their access to the physical and ICT environments as well as education and employment opportunities.
Asia-Pacific is the region most adversely affected by disasters, and there is evidence that persons with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die than the general population when disasters occur. Thus Governments also stressed the need to ensure that disaster risk reduction and management incorporates disability perspectives.
Finally, if we are to be able to measure progress in building disability-inclusive societies, it will be necessary for countries to improve their collection of statistics on the population of persons with diverse disabilities and their socio-economic status. This would enable policymaking to be evidence-based to support the realization of the rights of persons with disabilities.
It is time to give thought to how we can reshape our societies – 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 persons with disabilities get counted to count.
Dr. Noeleen Heyzer is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP.