The UN's Millennium Development Goals Leave Disabled People Behind


Approximately 10% of people worldwide suffer from at least one type of disability. Among these, the majority are women. Disabled people are affected by poverty, violence, and social exclusion, and gender only creates another vulnerable subgroup in the already vulnerable group of people with disabilities. While the empowerment of women is an objective comprised in the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals, disabled people in general and women with disabilities in particular are not part of this global development strategy. On September 23, the UN has decided to hold a high-level meeting of the General Assembly on disability in order to make up for the mistake. With three months to go before this meeting, it is questionable whether the UN will be able to take the issue of people with disabilities into the mainstream of international discussions.

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) have been set up in order to address the world’s largest issues, like poverty, health, education, women’s empowerment, and the environment. Put in practice at the beginning of 2000 and designed to successfully end in 2015, the objectives of this strategy have not come close to being met. Unsurprisingly, the UN is in the process of developing another set of MDGs, even though they might not take the form and name of the last ones. The problem is that at this point, people with disabilities are still not part of the global development discussions and the risks of being left aside by future strategies is very real.  

In the US, 20% of women and 17% of men have some kind of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, is said to be one of the leading bills on the subject in the world. The bad news is that the number of Americans with disabilities in the next 30 years is expected to rise, as the Baby Boomers come into old age. What is worse, while the rate of disabilities rising alongside age is somewhat normal, the problem is that people start suffering from different kinds of disabilities at considerably younger ages.

The economic causes and consequences of disabilities are complex and I do not have enough space to address them in detail here. Poverty is part of a vicious cycle that both determines and results from a disabled state. Especially in developing countries, malnutrition and lack of access to health care are some of the main causes of disability. Talking about armed conflicts, for every child killed, there are three who end up with a permanent form of disability. But developed countries like the U.S. have their own set of circumstances that affect the health of their citizens. An aging population is one that I have already mentioned. Stress, alcohol, and drug use are other examples.

Like in almost all areas, women and men are not equals when it comes to opportunities and threats. Violence against the disabled is one of the greatest problems both of them face. But women are the most vulnerable subgroup, being the victims of battering and sexual assault in a larger number of cases than men. The worst part is that disabled women are sometimes the victims of their caregivers.  From another point of view, generally speaking, people with disabilities still face discrimination in hiring, in spite of campaigns in favor of equal treatment. Numbers show that being a woman worsens one’s situation. Looking at the employment ratios in the U.S. in 2013, 14% of men are unemployed, compared to 16.3% of women.         

There are numerous problems related to defining, for instance, how you decide whether one is disabled or not, how one can contribute to society given his or her disability. Institutional rules and practices are no less a concern, together with policies and even ideologies. For instance, Chana Joffe-Walt has a very interesting approach to the problem of the rising numbers of disabled people in the U.S., claiming that some choose to be on disability after becoming unemployed. The problem is complex and multi-sided, requiring constant readjustment.

I have tried to illustrate some of the issues related to disabled persons using the American context, but the disabled represent a vulnerable group worldwide. The U.S. has a very detailed policy, still leaving place for improvement, but other countries, many of them in the developing world, lack the basic resources for ensuring people’s healthy development and equal chances in society. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the UN includes the disabled as a distinct group in its future MDGs. While this will not be the only development strategy that leaves the desks of UN officers, it is still the most extensive paper that engulfs the primary objectives for a more equitable world.