Sightsavers’ CEO Calls for Disability Rights

Vincent Okumu, Atugonza Milton and Ronald Sunday, all volunteers and former students from Sightsavers’ Connecting the Dots project in Uganda.

Dr. Caroline Harper, CEO of Sightsavers, attended the UK’s first global disability summit that was held in London on July 24th, 2018. Hosted jointly by the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID), the government of Kenya, and the International Disability Alliance (IDA), the Summit highlighted the need for equality for the world’s disabled.

Ambitious Goals

It is estimated that more than 1 billion of our fellow human beings around the world live with some form of disability. Over 80% (800 million) of them live in developing, impoverished and under-developed countries, where there is scant awareness of their plight, and hardly any respect shown for the challenges they face every day. Basic human rights, like receiving quality education or being considered for jobs based on their merit, are denied to this vast population.

The Global Disability Summit, which was attended by over 800 delegates from around the world, aimed to shine a light on these and a myriad of other challenges faced by the world’s disabled population. Prior to the Summit, the leadership of 36 international development organizations from the UK signed an “open letter” expressing hope and optimism in the Summit’s objectives.

While many of the same challenges have been talked about for decades, and commitments to deal with them enshrined in the U.N’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), progress on implementing them has been slow.

The Summit at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, which was organized around four key themes, was aimed at rededicating global efforts towards:

  • Dignity and respect for all
  • Inclusive education
  • Economic Empowerment, and
  • Technology and Innovation

Leading up to the Summit, Sightsavers had outlined its own vision of what it believed it liked to see accomplished at the event. Through its Put Us in the Picture campaign, the organization had made it known that it would like to see all attendees make commitments on inclusivity amongst the disabled. It also encouraged transparency and accountability with regards to the commitments made during the Summit, and how they are subsequently honored by participating member states/organizations.

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And judging by what was accomplished during the event, it seems like Sightsavers, in collaboration with other global partners, was successful in achieving many of the ambitious goals that it had in its sights.

Commitments to Change

If numbers testify to a willingness to change, then the outcomes from the Summit definitely augurs well for change for the better. More than 300 signatories supported the Global Disability Summit Charter for Change, which binds them to a pledge to pursue inclusivity and equality amongst people with disabilities in their countries/societies. While there were over 170 individual commitments to change that the signatories pledged to uphold, the Charter sums them all in a single sentence:

“…to ensure the rights, freedoms, dignity and inclusion for all persons with disabilities”

In the words of Penny Mordaunt, the UK’s International Development Secretary, these commitments prove that it’s time to “move from rhetoric to action.” So, what were some of the specific outcomes from the Summit?

  • Eighteen governments and participating organizations committed to enact new disability inclusion plans in their countries
  • Nine governments committed to passing new laws, or updating existing ones, leading to greater rights for people with disabilities in their countries
  • Thirty-Three participants pledged greater support to people with disabilities in conflict regions and suffering through humanitarian crisis – including a $16.4M commitment by Australia for disability support for the conflict in Syria
  • A pledge by the World Bank to make disability inclusiveness a cornerstone of all its educational project funding by 2025
  • Nine organizations and government entities committed to joining with the Global Partnership on assistive technology to bring technology to bear in delivering life-altering change (through technology) to people with disabilities
  • Seven UN agencies participating in the Summit pledged to change how they included people with disabilities in the way they (the UN Agencies) worked

Sightsavers has been at the forefront of advocacy for diversity and inclusiveness for people with disabilities. And the commitments made during the Summit largely align with the organization’s efforts for many years. For the past five years, Sightsavers and Put Us in the Picture have been staunchly voicing their support for the UK government to play a more active role in lobbying for global inclusivity and diversity for the disabled.   As Tessa Murphy, Sightsavers manager for the Put Us in the Picture initiative said: “…the summit shows how seriously DFID takes this need.”

Sightsavers’ Large Step Towards Equality and Inclusivity for All

Just a day prior to the Summit, on July 23, the IDA in concert with several of its civil society partners, organized the Civil Society Forum.  Aimed at being a pre-cursor to the Summit itself, the Forum was attended by over 600+ delegates that share the common goals of Summit attendees – inclusivity and broader societal participation for people with disabilities.

Together with a host of other partners and allied entities like the IDA, Sightsavers too has been sounding a clarion call for the rights of some of the most marginalized among civil societies around the globe. The organization has been dedicated to efforts to eliminate avoidable blindness, and to ensure that people with disabilities are warmly included into all aspects of civil societies in which they live.

CEO Dr. Caroline Harper, who was one of the attendees at the July 24th Summit, didn’t hide her joy over what was accomplished at the event:

“We’re thrilled with the commitments made at the Global Disability Summit. It’s fantastic to see the global development community coming together to recognize the importance of leaving no one behind in efforts to achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals and improve the lives of people in the world’s poorest countries.”

As a recent (2016) inductee as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), Dr. Harper is ideally placed to use her influence to bring disability inclusiveness to the fore, especially at a global event like the Summit. Her words echo what all of the 300+ signatories to the Charter for Change have pledged to work towards: Equality and inclusivity for all peoples with disabilities. And in many ways, the outcomes from the Summit have nudged a global alliance of government entities, not-for-profit organizations and donor establishments towards that direction.

Before July 24th, organizers and participants of both, the Forum and the Summit, had a single objective in mind: That of influencing greater awareness and engagement in the struggle for people with disabilities to be treated with equality and dignity. Dr. Harper’s “…leaving no one behind” comments succinctly sum up what’s needed of the world to make equality and inclusivity for all a reality.

As Sightsavers’ Tessa Murphy put it:

“With the summit over, and a host of potential life-changing commitments made, the work now begins to ensure that pledges go from words to action. Today, we are one large step closer to making a disability-inclusive world a reality.”

Though the dream of a world of inclusivity for all disabled peoples remains far from becoming a reality, the Forum and the Summit have given a roadmap for making the dream come true.

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Written by Eric

37-year-old who enjoys ferret racing, binge-watching boxed sets and praying. He is exciting and entertaining, but can also be very boring and a bit grumpy.

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