Going mainstream in including disabled people in development

4 min read
Image: WaterAid/James Kiyimba

One in seven people across the world have a disability and 80% live in developing countries. Many people with disabilities face discrimination and stigma in their everyday lives; they often remain locked out of opportunities, and as a result remain locked into poverty.

‘Leave no one behind’ is now a fundamental principle enshrined in the United Nations’ new Global Goals on sustainable development.

The goals have pledged to reach all 650 million people without access to clean water, and the 2.3 billion without access to sanitation – that means making taps, toilets and community processes accessible to everyone.

Everyone means everyone – we all have rights to water and sanitation, whether disabled or not, young or old, no matter where we live. But beyond these high-level commitments, what practical ways can nongovernmental organisations mainstream disability inclusion in their work?

Championing change together

In-country offices can often be bombarded with compliance and progress reports from head office, and as a result, may see disability inclusion as another tick box exercise. Creating understanding around its importance is vital to mainstreaming it into the work of NGOs.

The key to change is getting senior level staff on board to champion equality and inclusion. At WaterAid, we found this led to an environment where resources were then devoted to ensuring equality and inclusion, and staff had the space to run with it in their programming.

We carried out training to raise awareness on equality and inclusion across all staff. But it isn’t enough to simply run this once. It must be rolled out again and again; equality and inclusion must be included in every training session and every induction with all new employees and partner staff, so it becomes second nature.

It’s also important to remember there is a big difference between the world views of people in the global North, where we’ve had years of disability rights campaigning, and in the global South where it is just beginning.

For example, during a review of equity and inclusion at WaterAid, we discovered a general lack of understanding of disability as a human rights concept.

Many saw it as a physical impairment alone, rather than recognising that inclusion means addressing the barriers in society that exclude disabled people. When these barriers are addressed, people can achieve more.

To overcome this all staff, including staff within partner organisations, need support to understand the principles of rights and inclusion and then how to put these into practice.

Speaking ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ people with disabilities

NGOs often speak ‘for’ disabled people, rather ‘with’ them. Instead people with disabilities must have direct involvement in the development of policies.

This means they can prioritise the right issues and advocate for themselves. This leads to greater understanding of the issues by decision makers, and then greater commitment and action for change.

We know that partnering with disabled persons organisations, run by and for disabled people, facilitates this.

For example, in Nepal we’ve successfully lobbied for accessible public toilets in Kathmandu by joining forces with the National Federation of the Disabled and the Association of INGOs' disability working group. Together we created a series of films highlighting how a lack of accessible toilets impacts disabled people.

Creativity can also go some way in improving understanding. In Cambodia, we’re working with Epic Arts, an inclusive arts group, to raise awareness of disability and the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene. Creative arts projects such as music videos and workshops are helping to inspire people to recognise ability, not disability.

Convincing policy-makers to take action

It’s important to convince key policy and decision-makers to take disability seriously.

A few years ago we were told there was no comparative evidence showing the challenges disabled people face in accessing safe water, sanitation and hygiene services, or how to incorporate disability into development. So we began a process of gathering evidence to build a stronger case.

We worked with our partners and communities in Zambia and Uganda, and spoke to disabled, older and chronically ill people to understand the barriers they face in accessing water, sanitation and hygiene services.

The findings helped everyone understand who was excluded and why, what barriers disabled people face and what each party, including people with disabilities, could do to resolve these.

We presented the findings to a UK International Development Committee hearing on disability and development. WaterAid's Chief Executive, Barbara Frost gave evidence, drawing on our work and her experience in the disability sector.

Olupot Martin uses the new accessible water point in Abibico, Uganda.
Image: WaterAid/James Kiyimba

Ultimately the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) agreed to develop its disability framework based on the International Development Committee’s report.


The framework, first launched in December 2014, marked a turning point for the whole development community. It recognised that ensuring people with disabilities benefit equitably from international development is central to leaving no one behind.

Going forward

DFID’s Disability Framework is a huge leap forward in terms of mainstreaming equality and inclusion in the development sector. Such progress should be celebrated.

But many disabled people are still left behind. We all need to continue to push for change, so that disabled people benefit equitably from international development

You can read more of Jane Wilbur blogs in The Huffington Post