Every year on 3 December, the world observes International Day of People with Disabilities International Day of People with Disabilities.

Sisi Coalala with a braille machine.
Sisi Coalala, a teacher with Fiji School of the Blind and President of the United Blind Persons of Fiji Association, seen here at work assisting vision impaired students to access mainstream education. In 2013, when the opportunity to apply for an Australia Awards scholarship came up, Sisi decided it was time to pursue it. She won a place at the University of Wollongong to study a double Masters in Human Resources and Commerce. Photo credit: Small World Stories.

This important day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the lives of those living with disabilities in our communities, schools, workplaces or in our own families.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 7 (or 1 billion) people globally have a disability. Eighty per cent of these people live in developing countries. For many, stigma, exclusion and discrimination present deep personal challenges as well as barriers to being able to fully participate in their communities, affecting them economically.

In developing countries, where infrastructure and services for people with disabilities can be very limited, many are at risk of being left behind.

So it is also an important day to look at how the Australian aid program is giving a voice to people with disabilities, and what more we can do to respond to those voices. Through the Australian Government’s disability inclusive development strategy, ‘Development for All 2015-2020’, we have helped to support people with disabilities and improve the quality of their lives in a number of areas – in skills development, health, advocacy and education.

Australia has very productive partnerships for inclusive development in Vanuatu, for example, where our Skills for Economic Growth Programme has had remarkable results. In 2014 and 2015 more than half of the trainees with a disability increased their income within 6-8 months of taking part.

The success of the programme is due in part to consulting with and including people with disabilities in skills development. This is development assistance at its best: reaching those most disadvantaged, and helping them to help themselves.

Assistance with education and skills training is such an important part of Australia’s commitment to help improve the lives of those with disabilities.

Through the Australia Awards program, in 2017 we will support 125 fellows who have identified that they have a disability to study in Australia. This support in providing access to education will change lives by improving access to employment and ultimately the economic situation for recipients and their families.

Australia also works to build the capacity and skills of disabled people’s organisations globally. This helps ensure they have the expertise and knowledge to better advocate for the rights of their members to policy makers, their communities and their national governments.

We continue to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in influential global forums. We also continue to encourage partner governments, other donors, private sector organisations and NGOs to consider the needs of those most marginalised by poverty and social exclusion in our region: people with disabilities. Supporting these marginalised groups in our region to lift them out of poverty makes our region more stable and secure.

Australia has helped establish the Global Action on Disability Network so international efforts in disability-inclusive development and humanitarian action is better coordinated. Australia and the International Disability Alliance are the current co-chairs. Together, we are establishing mechanisms to ensure the global community can meet the SDGs for people with disabilities by working together. We will do this by sharing expertise, coordinating actions, and raising the profile of disability across a broader range of organisations to contribute to international development efforts.

Australia also plays an active role at the UN to support human rights. We make statements on issues of concern and support the development of positive human rights standards, particularly for women and people with disabilities. Australia has developed a strong reputation as an active, principled and pragmatic contributor to these forums and we will continue to do so.

The stability of our region depends upon sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction. It is estimated that national economies lose around 5-7% of GDP when people with disabilities do not have equal access to economic opportunities and are left behind. Investing in disability is therefore beneficial not only to those receiving aid overseas, but also to Australia.

So it is important that Australia remains a global leader in the area of disability-inclusive development. We must continue to have a strong international voice for the rights of people with disabilities. These efforts matter because they help improve the lives of the largest and most disadvantaged minority in the world with the vital objective of leaving no one behind.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific
Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
3 December 2016

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