• COVID-19 has been devastating for disabled people who face cancelled operations or are shielding alone.
  • While society is moving towards inclusion, the pandemic risks reversing progress.
  • December 3rd, 2020 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The momentum towards greater inclusion is growing globally. Driven by human rights activists and social movements, we are increasingly aware of the harmful inequalities which result from structural discrimination based on a range of individual and intersecting identities.

Disability is no exception; change is gradually building across different sectors of business and society. There is still a long way to go, even in so-called ‘developed countries’. In the low- and middle-income countries, where my work currently focuses, inequalities can be even more stark. Entrenched stigma and discrimination often define the experiences of people with disabilities in these contexts and deepen the poverty trap.

Frequently in my advisory work on disability inclusion, I come across the same questions, regardless of the sector; “Where are the examples of good practice? What evidence exists and what data is out there?” This is still a big challenge to progress. If both quantitative and qualitative data are not being captured by governments, businesses, charities and other sectors in mainstream projects and programmes, then it is difficult to know what interventions or remediation may be needed now and in the future. Progress can only be made if it is equal and everywhere.

'Disability is all too often an after-thought'

The COVID-19 pandemic also risks derailing any progress that has been made so far. I regard my position as a disabled woman as one with a fair amount of privilege. I am independent, I can be fairly mobile within reason, I work, and I have access to prosthetic limbs and assistive technology, without which I could not function independently.

Challenges do come with privilege however, and I experienced this recently when my appointment to replace a faulty knee joint at the hospital was cancelled only a day before I was due to attend. Fortunately, I have a spare prosthetic for such an occasion and it isn’t a life-threatening issue, but there is still a certain peace of mind which comes with knowing you will receive the technology you need to be able to live your life to the fullest and safely.

Numerous reports have surfaced throughout this year around cancelled operations and essential appointments, people who are shielding and alone or in institutions where the pandemic has run rife and caused devastation. I don’t think we know the full extent or impact of this pandemic on many people’s lives, but to a smaller and minor extent, even I have experienced it and I know that there are many people with disabilities who have come across far worse. Disability is all too often an after-thought and not mainstreamed enough into thinking and planning, regardless of the industry.

I am not sure people really understand the transformational impact that interventions, programmes, funding opportunities, education and technology (amongst other things) can have on the lives of people with disabilities globally.

To illustrate this point with a personal example, this summer I took my first steps on a staycation in the UK into the sea. I was able to walk into the water standing upright on a fully waterproof prosthetic leg, with a knee joint that can withstand sand and saltwater and completely submerge. In my thirty something years of life, I had never known what it felt like to walk unaided by others upright into the sea. I love to swim and be in the water, as is obvious from my professional sporting career choice, but to be able to drive down to the coast, walk into the water up to my neck, without kneeling on the ground, being aided by someone as I hop or shuffling and battling through waves and currents, was a liberation and a first for me. I posted an image after doing this on Twitter and the post went viral.

Many influencers and social media aficionados wonder what it takes to go viral. All it took was a piece of transformative technology, an ability to put myself into a vulnerable position, where I knew I would be observed and to share this life changing experience with others. I did not post it for likes or comments though, I simply hoped that others could share their experiences, would be encouraged to enquire about similar technology for their own use and to get people thinking about the power of a product to transform a life.

On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities I am again asking the same: for governments to appreciate and accommodate the diverse experiences of people in their decision making; including all aspects of and identities in society, for business and industries to consider the value of universal design and the transformation that comes through economic opportunity and diverse skill sets and for society to be open enough to embrace alternative perspectives and opinions.

There is no one sector that will provide the solution to inclusion, but as is the case with sustainability and climate change, it takes a collaborative and collective effort. We are on a journey, possibly at the start, but I hope that progress will continue into the future.

Written by Susannah Rodgers MBE (Young Global Leader (2018), Paralympic champion and multiple medallist (Swimming), Technical Adviser on Disability Inclusion at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (UK). Disclaimer: views are my own, not those of my employer