Illustration for 'The next big rights revolution'

Yusuf, a 10-year-old in Tanzania, went to school in his wheelchair. That counted as a success: many African children who need wheelchairs can’t get them, and many disabled African children never go to school. However, Yusuf’s school didn’t have a disabled toilet. Not using the toilet made him ill.

In years past, this story would have had people nodding earnestly and saying, “Isn’t it awful?” before moving the conversation on to something more interesting. But that’s now changing. The world’s one billion disabled people (according to the World Health Organisation’s estimate) are finally being taken seriously in development.

It turns out that if we’re to keep reducing extreme poverty worldwide, this is the group to reach. “Disabled people in developing countries are the poorest of the poor,” says Sir Malcolm Bruce, who chairs the UK parliament’s international development committee. Often these people keep their families poor too. All that can be changed.

Almost unheralded, life has been improving for the very poor. When the UN in 2000 set a millennium development goal (MDG) of halving the percentage of humans living in extreme poverty by 2015, it sounded like just pompous verbiage. Perhaps the drafters themselves thought so too. But despite economic crisis, the world hit that target five years early, says the World Bank. By 2010, “only” about one in five humans had less than $1.25 a day to live on (at 2005 prices). Furthermore, notes the UN, “More children than ever are attending primary school, child deaths have dropped dramatically, access to safe drinking water has been greatly expanded,” and death rates from malaria, Aids and tuberculosis are plummeting.

The question is how to keep progressing. Next year the UN will agree a new set of MDGs. These will set the agenda for the world’s development agencies. The eight MDGs adopted in 2001 didn’t mention disability, not even in the small print. In the new MDGs, disability will probably be prominent.

That’s crucial, because disabled people – about four-fifths of whom live in developing countries – tend to be poor. They rarely go to school, are denied jobs and get stigmatised. So they usually end up at the bottom. Tim Wainwright, chief executive of the disability charity ADD International, says, “If you don’t pay attention to particularly excluded groups, you won’t be able to eradicate poverty.”

One disabled person can drag a whole family into poverty. I recently met a struggling single father in Manchester who cannot work because he cares full-time for his mentally ill daughter. The WHO says: “Households with a person with a disability have higher rates of poverty.”

In part, the new interest in disabled people reflects the belated discovery that there are no second-class humans. This revelation has driven the “rights revolution” of recent decades. First black Americans, then women and gay people claimed the same rights as anyone else. The disabled remained ignored longest, possibly because they’re a club nobody wanted to belong to. The word “disabled” remains a stigma.

“A lot of disabled people don’t think of themselves as disabled. Many parents of disabled children will not even mention their existence,” says Wainwright.

“Disability” is a turn-off that prompts pieties, boredom and disgust. Disabled poor women face triple discrimination. Disabled people in developing countries are still often hidden away at home, tied up if mentally ill, or left to die in childhood. Joseph Walugembe, a Ugandan disabled activist, says some Ugandans assume that a family with a disabled person has “a demon over it”, or that disability is contagious. These families then often become isolated.

Disabled people finally joined the rights revolution in 2006, with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention might sound like meaningless bureaucratic boilerplate. However, 158 countries have signed it (even the US might) and it is starting to influence national policies. A country building new schools, for instance, may now actually put in disabled loos.

Provision for disabled people still often remains dreadful: remember the bogus sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. But at last there are attempts to improve it. Yusuf’s school in Tanzania is addressing his toilet issues. A measure like that can help reduce global poverty.

Lots of disabled people could contribute to society given half a chance. If an old blind person gets a cheap cataract operation, she can look after the grandchildren rather than needing her own carer. Often, the key is to persuade the parents to see a disabled child’s potential, instead of treating him as a burden, says Edwin Osundwa, Kenyan representative of the deaf-blind organisation Sense International. Then the parents might lobby a teacher to let the child into school. Then the kid’s mother can work instead of caring for him, and family income rises. Better, the child stops feeling like a burden. Wainwright says: “I don’t think of disabled people as people who need charity. They need the barriers removed that stop them participating in society.”

Removing those barriers is economically efficient. It may even be starting to happen.

This article has been amended since publication to give the correct year the MDGs were adopted.; Twitter @KuperSimon

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