UNDIS: a framework for lasting, transformative change?
An inside view from a UN staff member
1 Dec 2021

An inclusive society is one where all people, including persons with disabilities, can live with dignity, participate fully, and realise their potential. Persons with disabilities are first and foremost people, with the same rights and needs as anyone else. However, persons with disabilities continue to be among those who are most excluded in our society today. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this, disproportionately impacting women, men, boys and girls with disabilities.

Disability inclusion is an essential condition to upholding human rights, sustainable development, and peace and security for all. It is also central to achieving the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – to leave no one behind. We cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals if more than one billion people with disabilities are left out.

In June 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General launched the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy (UNDIS) to make the United Nations an inclusive organisation for all. The wide-ranging strategy establishes the foundation for systemic and sustainable change on disability inclusion across all UN pillars, programmes and operations, at the headquarters and field levels. Since its launch, the strategy has provided a comprehensive and practical roadmap to ensure the UN system takes concrete actions, not just at the policy level, but also at the programmatic and operational levels. The strategy contains a policy and accountability framework with concrete indicators and benchmarks that enable all areas of the organisation to track their progress on disability inclusion.

All UN Headquarters, commissions, agencies, departments and offices (also known as ‘UN entities’), as well as country teams, implement the strategy through targeted actions, and report their progress on an annual basis. This regular reporting and monitoring of actions undertaken by the UN system enables us to measure overall system-wide progress, as well as to identify bottlenecks and challenges, gaps and areas that need prioritisation. It also enables the UN system to be more accountable on disability inclusion internally as well as towards Member States.

Fifty-seven UN entities and seven UNCTs reported on the implementation of the strategy in its first year, whereas in the second year, 66 UN entities and 130 UNCTs reported on it, demonstrating a strong uptake both at headquarters and in the field.

Evidence from the first two years of implementation clearly shows that the strategy is playing a pivotal role in advancing disability inclusion within the UN system. Progress was made both at headquarters and at the field levels across all UN pillars – including in the peace and security pillar, which has more recently started working on disability inclusion.

In many instances, UN entities and country teams have reviewed their policies and procedures related to programmes and operations, and developed new ones to address disability inclusion in a more systematic manner. Initiatives to raise awareness on disability inclusion have been undertaken and efforts have been made to enhance both physical and digital accessibility of our offices, ICT infrastructure, websites and publications. More efforts are also being made to consult organisations led by persons with disabilities, for persons with disabilities.

When launching the strategy, the Secretary-General made it clear that the UN should be an employer of choice for persons with disabilities. This can only be made possible by making our offices accessible, providing reasonable accommodation, and by creating an enabling environment where all people, including persons with disabilities, feel valued. The biggest barrier to inclusion is often in our mindset.

The UN system has rallied around the strategy and embraced the Secretary-General’s call to make the necessary changes within our organisation – to lead by example on disability inclusion, support the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, and support Member States to fulfil their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Hundreds of UN colleagues around the world are working with enthusiasm and vigour to implement the strategy and to bring about change. There is an increasing realisation that all staff can and should contribute to disability inclusion. Small steps can often have a big impact and, most importantly, you don’t need to be an expert on disability inclusion to contribute to the inclusion of persons with disabilities! The progress that has been made in the first two years of UNDIS implementation has been possible through a collective effort of colleagues working in many different areas of the UN, spanning programmes as well as in operations. At the same time, it is clear that we have a long way to go to ensure that persons with disabilities are fully included in our programmatic work, as well as being represented in our workforce. The continued engagement of staff at all levels of the organisation on the sustained implementation of the strategy remains, therefore, critical.

* Gopal Mitra is a Senior Social Affairs Officer, Disability Team, Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General.
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