An accessible future: three key changes for disability-inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene 

4 min read
What about me' workshop in Kampot Province, Cambodia, September, 2019.
Image: WaterAid/Sokmeng You

Making sure everyone’s human rights are met regardless of ability is at the core of our work to improve water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) access. But there is still a lot of work for all of us in the sector to do to ensure full and equal inclusion. Priya Nath shares three key changes highlighted in our World Water Week workshop with international organisations including UNICEF and the World Bank.

Every year, 3 December – International Day of Persons with Disabilities – is a good time to celebrate, reflect and check in on progress we are making as individuals, organisations and societies towards real and meaningful inclusion and equality for persons living with disabilities around the world.

But this is not, and should not be, a one-day event! The human rights, dignity and bodily integrity of persons with disabilities is an ongoing, daily concern.

What needs to change in practice for truly inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)?

At Stockholm World Water Week in August, UNICEF, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the World Bank, Human Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities Uganda (HURIWD), the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), Amplify Change and WaterAid joined forces to host a conversation titled 'Missing billion: what is needed for disability-inclusive WASH in practice?'

The conversation was rich. The evidence of the barriers that persons with disabilities face when it comes to their everyday WASH requirements was eye opening.

The film below captures just some of the reality and the opportunities for better, more inclusive work.

The advice and recommendations shared by disability rights advocates from Ethiopia to Sweden, Uganda to Pakistan were based on both lived experience and experience of working with WASH organisations. Advice included, but was not limited to, three points.

First and foremost, abide by the principle of ‘Nothing about us without us’.

This principle describes the idea that no policy should be decided without full participation of members of the group affected by that policy – in this case, the persons with disabilities themselves. This, the experts emphasised, was important from the beginning and at all stages of interventions – in project design, implementation and evaluation.

Ugandan parliamentarian and disability rights advocate Hon Nalule Safia Juuko emphasised that “You can't underestimate the power of being present where decisions are being made. It is up to you, the actor, to come and learn from me what needs to be done. Come and talk to me, come and see me. Learn from us, understand our diversity.”

She reminded WASH professionals that “You can’t expect people who have no experience of disability to understand what disabled people need. We are the experts. We live this every day.”

Second, learn what the ‘disabilities’ are in the context – noting that some people will be hidden.

Take the necessary practical steps to understand what the ‘disabilities’ are that exist in the context, while acknowledging that people with disabilities are often hidden far from view. This means it’s important to collect the right data, involve the right people and ask the right questions. It means learning about the legislative protections that do exist, and finding out where there are gaps in those protections, or, more commonly, in the implementation of those protections. And, most importantly, it means working practically, side by side, with organisations of persons with disabilities (known as OPDs), who are instrumental in creating and sustaining positive changes at both community and policy levels.

As VK Madhavan, Chief Executive of WaterAid India, reminded us, “There are no shortcuts to going out and identifying (persons with disabilities), verifying their facilities – there is no shortcut.”

Third, acknowledge the multiple and interconnected barriers that exist for persons with disabilities.

Bringing communities that have been left behind to be the centre of interventions is hard and takes time. In India, for example, it became clear that there are many challenges associated with retrofitting accessible toilets into households of persons living with disabilities. Among these are that the right supply chains for the equipment needed to build the toilets do not exist, and there is a lack of family support for the changes.

Inclusivity must be prioritised year-round

Tackling each of these is necessary to achieve inclusive WASH for all, but this does not happen overnight. As Melaku Tekle Zengeta, Executive Director of the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development, reminded the audience, “We can no longer continue as though everything is business as usual.”

While today is a good day to focus on these issues, we cannot afford to limit this focus to one day or even 30 days. We need this focus and commitment 365 days of the year.

Logos of the organisations mentioned in the blog.

This blog was co-authored by co-authored by Priya Nath (WaterAid), Hon Nalule Safia Juuko (Human Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities Uganda [HURIWD]) and Melaku Tekla Zengeta (Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development [ECDD]), with support from Amplify ChangeSida, UNICEF and the World Bank.