10 Approaches for Disability Inclusion in the Aid System

Best practice approaches to ensuring that international and local community development and humanitarian programmes are inclusive of and accessible to people with disabilities need not be costly or complicated. They can be applied across the whole aid system. They include the following.

1. Knowledge raising and changing attitudes/behaviours

 Challenging staff and community attitudes is the first step to seeing positive change towards the inclusion of people with disabilities in the aid system. 

Working alongside people with disabilities results in a positive change in the attitudes and behaviour development practitioners implementing programmes and enable them to better tailor their services to meet the needs of people with disabilities[1].  Bringing disability into political and social discourses can create awareness and understanding of it at institutional, organisational and community levels, which can promote positive attitudes towards people with disabilities and inclusive / accessible measures. Greater awareness encourages identification of incidence, type and impact of disability. This awareness should encompass recognition of the diverse experiences of people with disabilities, and an understanding of the social model of disability and the different barriers people with disabilities face, alongside a rights-based model of disability. It is important to reinforce inclusion regularly with all stakeholders. 

2. Comprehensive accessibility

Comprehensive accessibility ensures that physical, communication, attitudinal and institutional barriers are both identified and addressed. Providing comprehensive accessibility is considered a central enabler of an improved, participative social, political, cultural, and economic environment for everyone. This is facilitated by universal design. 

3. Involve OPDs

The mantra of the disability movement, ‘nothing about us, without us’, highlights that organisations should provide services with people with disabilities, rather than for them. OPDs can play an important role in this process: donors, UN agencies and INGO’s should consider helping to address OPDs’ capacity and capability gaps, which are sometimes large. Especially if we expect OPD’s to be humanitarian and international development partners and may not have much knowledge and experience in the aid sector. It is also important to be accountable to people with disabilities, and a two-way appraisal process should be implemented in all partnerships with OPD’s.  

The involvement and leadership of people with disabilities in aid and associated activities can lead to better attention to their concerns in organisations and programmes, and greater appreciation by other community members of their skills and capacities. 

4. Mainstreaming

Mainstreaming disability in development and humanitarian response is broadly defined as the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of development and humanitarian efforts. It means that people with disabilities should be considered and given reasonable accommodations in all programming (although disability-specific actions and programming may also be required) 

Mainstreaming includes methods, a policies and tools for achieving social inclusion, which involves the practical pursuit of non-discrimination and equality of opportunity. Mainstreaming disability is about ‘recognising persons with disabilities as rights-holding, equal members of society who must be actively engaged in the development process irrespective of their dis-ability or other status, such as ethnicity; sexual orientation; gender identity; sex characteristics; and age. 

It is important that efforts to mainstream disability begin with analysis of barriers to inclusion and careful planning. There is a risk that mainstreaming can lead to ‘token involvement of people with disabilities and the neglect of their self-determination and equality’ if not carried out well. 

5. Twin-track approach

The twin track approach combines mainstreaming with disability-specific projects needed to achieve the full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities. The twin-track approach is the most commonly referenced approach by UN agencies, bilateral development agencies and NGOs for including people with disabilities in development and humanitarian response. 

Successful outcomes require emphasis on both tracks (mainstream & disability specific), as they complement each other. My experience is that often the balance is tipped towards disability specific projects and services, rather than mainstreaming. If a disability specific approach is implemented because that is what is familiar or because it seems too hard to mainstream inclusion, there is a danger this reinforces exclusion and segregation. 

6. Reasonable accommodation

Reasonable accommodation is defined by the UNCRPD as necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to people with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms[2]. It is an important strategy in mainstreaming It can include:

  • structural modifications to facilities.
  • use of equipment with universal design features.
  • communication in appropriate formats.
  • modification of working times or arrangements; and
  • alternative models of service delivery 

Requirements for reasonable accommodation can be voluntary or mandatory depending on your organisational policies, funding requirements and the country you are working in. In some circumstances, for example where development projects bear the cost of providing reasonable accommodations, they may be less likely to hire people with disabilities, although various financial incentives can be offered to counter these obstacles by donors. 

7. Participation

Best practices for disability inclusion in development and humanitarian work are ‘participatory, actively and meaningfully involving people with disability in all matters concerning them in the process of forming policies and programmes. An authentic approach to participation is using co-design as a methodology and approach. You can find more information on co-design here. People with disabilities can and should be involved in all areas of research, design, implementation and evaluation. Guidance on using Participatory Action Research is the ‘Voices of the Table’ toolkit (being launched at the WASH Futures conference 2023) and was piloted in Indonesia. 

8. Include diversity of disability and see people with disabilities as whole people. 

It is important to ensure that the inclusion of people with disabilities includes the most under-represented groups, such as persons with psychosocial disabilities and persons with intellectual disabilities. Not doing so can result in programmes’ impact being substantially reduced because of too much emphasis being placed on small selection of the most articulate and least isolated people with disabilities. However, it is also important to consider the intersectionality of disability with gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age and other factors that can contribute to discrimination or exclusion. 

9. Rights-based approach

It is increasingly understood that the best practices for disability inclusion adopt a rights-based approach. This is an evolution to the needs-based approach previously implemented in aid organisations. This means that each mainstreaming initiative should contribute systematically to the implementation of the UNCRPD[3], which aims to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity’. A rights-based approach promotes barrier removal and inclusion in all thematic areas within the humanitarian and international development sectors.

10. Strengths Based Approach 

A strengths-based approach to disability inclusion highlights strengths, assets, capacities, skills and resources, rather than deficits, deficiencies and weaknesses. A strengths (and asset-based) approach means focusing on what a person can do, not what they cannot do, despite barriers and challenges. The approach is structured to help people with disabilities (and other under-represented community members) discover the knowledges and skills that contribute to the programme or project. People with disabilities are often not given the respect, dignity and opportunities to make their own choices because others wrongly assume that they are not able to do so. We can and we should help communities gain confidence in their own decision-making abilities and share their skills and experiences to better the aid system and the projects that involve their communities. 

To build your inclusion skills and knowledge, check out my Disability and Development training courses. 

[1] https://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/research-resources/building-capacity-for-disability-inclusion-in-gender-based-violence-gbv-programming-in-humanitarian-settings-overview/

[2] https://www.un.org/disabilities/documents/convention/convoptprot-e.pdf

[3] https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html