No more excuses: time to clear the path for people with disabilities

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/James Kiyimba

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, WaterAid’s Advocacy Coordinator, Dan Jones, and Equality, Inclusion and Rights Advisor, Jane Wilbur, reflect that it’s time to get real about ‘leaving no-one behind’.

Olupot Martin is 50 years old. He’s married with seven children (two boys and five girls). He’s a farmer in Abibicho, Uganda, where he grows cassava, peanuts and millet. When he gets a good harvest he sells some of the produce to get money to buy books for his children and for medical care. He also does carpentry for the village. Oh, and he’s also constructed his own toilet seat and tippy tap for washing his hands, and wants to buy himself a tricycle to get around more easily. This is not a man you stand in the way of. He has determination, creativity, and optimism, despite serious challenges.

Justine Dabire, 39, pictured on her tricycle next to her latrine in Burkina Faso.
Justine on her tricycle next to her latrine in Dissin, Burkina Faso.
Image: WaterAid/Basile Ouedraogo

Olupot is not alone in his determination to overcome those challenges. In Burkina Faso, 39-year-old Justine Dabire is delighted with her accessible toilet she constructed with the support of VARENA ASSO, WaterAid’s partner organisation.

“The latrine is just behind our house. With the latrine, people can’t see me while I’m relieving myself. Now I can relieve myself in the latrine with complete peace of mind, with privacy, without the fear of being seen by passers-by. In addition, I must say that not defecating in the open protects the water in our wells and the backwaters from waste. If we stop defecating in the open, waste will not soil the water and make us sick."

Justine, Olupot, and many millions more people with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries are demanding, with increasing success, their human rights to water and sanitation. They are doing so in circumstances where some people see their impairments as intractable obstacles, or even, in some communities, as ‘curses’. This, combined with their low incomes, and their living in poor communities with limited infrastructure and not much chance of a quality education, would have led them to be classed as what development practitioners often term ‘the hard to reach’, or ‘the most marginalised’. Yet with determination and specific support, their lives are improving.

These examples show us we are heading in the right direction. Progress is being made. We all sometimes feel drowned in negative news, the stories of inequality and corruption that make us feel like the world is headed backwards. But, in fact, there is much to celebrate and a real sense of positive momentum in many of the places WaterAid works.

Last year, every member state of the UN signed on to a set of Sustainable Development Goals that said, very clearly, ‘we will leave no-one behind’. WaterAid is determined to play our part in achieving that vision – of a world where everyone everywhere has access to clean water, sanitation, and good hygiene by 2030. A world where inequalities are reduced, where there is gender equality, and good quality education and healthcare for all.

14 years to go. What are we waiting for?

Too often, when we meet with policy-makers around the world, and even when we talk to each other within the development community, we talk about the many reasons why it is hard to reach people with disabilities in poor communities. We argue about the lack of data, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of money. We delay, postpone, obfuscate.

Pramila teaches a class at the Resource Center for Intellectual Disability, Nepal.
Pramila is a teacher at the Resource Center for Intellectual Disability in Kharelthok, Nepal.
Image: WaterAid/Miguel Samper

This is not an adequate response. There is more and more evidence of the progress that can be made when all actors start taking real, practical steps towards inclusive WASH. Small steps initially, taking account of the intersecting factors of inequality that face many of the communities we work with, can make a real difference. Whether you are a policy-maker, donor or WASH practitioner, here are three steps you can take, starting right now.

1. Make services accessible

If services aren’t accessible, some people with disabilities cannot fully benefit from them. They may be forced to crawl on the floor to use a toilet or soil themselves waiting for help. So make a start right now in ensuring all staff responsible for WASH service delivery recognise their responsibility to provide services for all, and act accordingly.

Promote simple and affordable accessible WASH designs to households, and make accessible WASH part of school and hospital design. Start new collaborations and partnerships with WASH, disability, education and health experts to mainstream disability in development. Make adequate resources available and be accountable for using them to maximum benefit for people with disabilities.

2. End discrimination

Discrimination against people with disabilities means they are often unable to access services. They may be stopped from using a tap because of social stigma and traditional beliefs that they are ‘dirty’, or verbally abused when attempting to use a public toilet. So now is the time to support and respond positively to accessibility awareness-raising campaigns that highlight the issues affecting people with disabilities. Begin actively working across government, private sector stakeholders and practitioners to promote ways for people with disabilities to claim their rights to water and sanitation.

3. Be inclusive

Most policies and standards do not include the needs of people with disabilities. Information is not accessible, so people remain unaware of their rights, good practices, and the options available to them. They are not involved in decision-making, which can lead to inappropriate design of services. So begin now to improve the ways in which you communicate about WASH services – communicate in an accessible way that can be understood by everyone. Proactively invite people with disabilities, and the organisations that represent them, to participate in policy debates and the design of the services that they will use.

No more excuses

It’s time to clear a path to enable determined, creative, optimistic people with disabilities to improve their lives. Governments, donors, companies, communities, and NGOs such as WaterAid must all take action now to ensure the expansion of WASH services that are inclusive and accessible to all. Time is ticking by, and we need to get real, and get practical, now.


Dan Jones tweets as @danrodmanjones 
Jane Wilbur tweets as @janewilbur