Making Disability Visible: Inclusive Reconstruction in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States

Guest blog post by Deborah Stienstra, Professor in Disability Studies, University of Manitoba

Policy makers, researchers and activists may be skeptical about including disability in discussions about fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS). There are so many urgent and competing priorities for development initiatives in these states—how can we possibly add one more?

Yet disability is an integral aspect of social vulnerability in FCAS. Continuing to accept the invisibility of disability has negative consequences for development policies and practices in FCAS. In addition, 130 countries, including Canada, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which commits them to ensuring access and inclusion—including through development cooperation assistance and in response to natural disasters, emergencies and conflict situations.

As a result of landmines, conflict, malnutrition, gender-based violence, poverty and lack of access to necessary health services (among other things), people may face barriers to their mobility, emotional security, learning, ability to work or care for themselves and their children, and many other parts of life. We often label these people as disabled.

It is time to recognize persons with disabilities as persons with unique abilities to contribute to reconstruction, and indeed to social transformation.

The 2011 World Report on Disability suggests that over 1 billion people experience disability and that its effects ripple through families and communities. Over 2 billion people (one in four families) are directly affected by disability. The majority of people with disabilities live in the global South.

War and conflict are significant disabling factors. In the words of a 2008 UN report, “[c]onflicts and natural disasters can increase the number of persons with disabilities, and at the same time, increase vulnerability of women and children with disabilities.” Disability creates poverty, and poverty creates disability.  These realities mean that a significant proportion of those in FCAS experience disability.

How do development policies and programs in FCAS address disability?  Unfortunately, despite the pervasiveness of the experiences of disability, they often remain invisible in reconstruction and rebuilding efforts. This has significant negative consequences for the success of reconstruction efforts in FCAS.

Priority investments

Education for all is a Millennium Development Goal and is essential to the New Deal peace-building and state-building goal of generating employment and providing livelihoods. Education has a broader purpose in FCAS. It offers not only learning and social connections but also child protection from violence and abuse, as well as positive benefits leading to health, economic contributions, and active and engaged citizens.

In FCAS a greater proportion of children are likely to be out of school; children with disabilities account for at least one-third of all out-of-school children, according to UNICEF. This occurs because of a lack of attention from teachers, funding, and physical barriers such as transportation or inaccessible buildings. But the disability gap in education also occurs because of the belief held by many that children with disabilities cannot contribute to the rebuilding processes and therefore are a lower priority than others for education.

What gets reconstructed how?

Despite research illustrating that it is cheaper to build new structures accessibly than to retrofit buildings after the fact or to address the exclusion of those who cannot access buildings, reconstruction efforts do not have to meet universal or inclusive design standards. We continue to see examples of schools, hospitals and other public places rebuilt without access for all after conflict or disasters.

Ensuring the inclusive access required in the UNCRPD is a responsibility of international organizations, donor countries and recipient countries. Reconstruction efforts in Haiti offer some examples of how to do this. The Global Partnership on Disability and Development Working Group on Haiti Reconstruction developed a toolkit for long-term recovery that emphasizes the inclusion of all, including people with disabilities.

Who gets a seat at the table?

Finally, community members need to be at the rebuilding table in order to raise issues of concern to them. Few women or men with disabilities are invited to the table in rebuilding efforts. Even in countries committed to mechanisms such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, women with disabilities remain unrecognized as community leaders who can contribute to peace processes.

Implicit in many existing policies and practices in FCAS is the assumption that people with disabilities cannot contribute to their communities. When we fail to remove barriers to inclusion in education, reconstruction and participation, we perpetuate the belief that people with disabilities are only victims of conflict or poverty. It is time to recognize persons with disabilities as persons with unique abilities to contribute to reconstruction, and indeed to social transformation.

Canada, through its leadership on FCAS and in the OECD’s International Network on Conflict and Fragility, should include a focus on implementing the UNCRPD and ensuring access and inclusion in FCAS.


This blog post is part of an online discussion on “Development in Fragile States? Lessons and Options for Canada” building on a symposium held at the University of Ottawa on February 8, 2013. Bringing together academics, Canadian government representatives and non-government experts, the conference and this blog series aim to create space for constructive, evidence-based policy dialogue on the development dimensions of Canadian engagement in fragile and conflict affected states.

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