How inclusive is ‘inclusive’?: An inquiry to ASEAN’s disability-inclusive development

AAYLF delegate from the Philippines Joshua Espiritu draws attention to the current limitations of the scarcity of accurate data on persons with disability and the importance of this data for quality of life, social protection and participation in the community.

Scarcity of Data on Persons with Disability: A ‘Disabling’ Development 

Inclusivity, a development principle wherein ASEAN’s policies are anchored, has propelled most of the region’s programs and initiatives in the twenty-first century. As encapsulated in the Bangkok Declaration, future implementations must be grounded by the concepts of equality and inclusivity. Moreover, the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 reflects the aspiration of its member states as well as its people to realise a people-oriented, people-centred ASEAN Community: “where the people enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms, higher quality of life and the benefits of community building”. Specifically, the 2025 Blueprint of ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) stipulates specific strategies and courses of action that are geared towards putting an end to the discrimination experienced by persons with disabilities, thereby, ensuring them with equal opportunities, accessibility, and at the same time upholds the rule of law, promoteing their respective rights as humans. With the goals being said, the question now is how do we ensure people of an inclusive development when there are no up-to-date, reliable and opportune statistics on disability across the region since the inception of ASEAN in 1967? Existing data relies on rough estimates and projections (e.g. The World Health Organization/World Bank average prevalence rates; sample surveys on PWDs) and there are no hard data to reflect the state-of-affairs of persons with disability in Southeast Asia. How can we devise informed choices as a regional community if no sufficient information is available? 

PWDs’ access to quality of life and education, mobility, participation in the community, social protection, legal support and medical treatments will be dependent on accurate data and statistical analysis. Without these, our attempt to close the gap and our desire to ensure them of their rights and dignity will most likely fail. Reliable data is of paramount significance in achieving inclusive development in the region. In other words, if we cannot have it measured then we cannot have it done. 

Data-Driven and Evidence-Based Policy: Achieving a Disability-Inclusive Development 

Driving forward initiatives and programs to support disability inclusion in Southeast Asia means being more erudite about persons with disabilities. This includes acquiring data on the pervasiveness of disability and its diversification across ASEAN countries. As we contextualize this issue, we can better situate the stigma and discrimination they face, their struggles, lack of opportunities for them, and most importantly, their potential for development. Making sure that no persons with disabilities are left behind necessitates the consistent collection and analysis of data on their population across all sectors (e.g. women with disabilities, indigenous people with disability, elderly with special needs, etc.) as a means to ensure that the disability sector are benefiting from development programs and initiatives being introduced at various levels —local, national and regional. 

Being data-driven will allow us, our policy-makers and state leaders to rethink and recalibrate the kind of development targets we are setting for everyone, especially for PWDs. The level of efficiency and effectivity of supports to inclusion relies on the intrinsically identified needs and perspectives of persons with disabilities and not just being perceived as an ‘add-on’ group. When they themselves are given the voice and are heard, it is a way to recognize their potentials and capabilities and will enable them to define their direction and participate in the process of change through collective action that will ensure their well-being. 

With this, persons with disabilities should be given a seat at the table. They should have full access to participation and involvement in the crafting of these policies regardless of their social, economic and political status. But the absence of these principles made the participation of persons with disabilities less and less possible. Most of the time, particularly in policy-making processes, whether national and ASEAN in scope, this sector has not been given a seat at the table. This had resulted in a significant gap and inconsistencies in the policies we have today. 

Extra-structural support in the policy-making processes should be provided to PWDs in order for them to have equal access. Thus, the policy makers in local, national and ASEAN level should have an eye for persons with disabilities in policy making processes because this democratizes the process per se and therefore demonstrates an inclusive policy support. No matter what, participation should always be seen as a right and responsibility attributed to both the person and the state. 

Opportunities for ASEAN-Australia Partnership 

Australia, being one of ASEAN’s key dialogue partners, has initiated efforts that are geared towards improving the quality of life of people with disabilities in developing countries such as the ASEAN member states. They are committed to working with partner governments and people with disability organisations in achieving such. 

Australian Government’s Development for All 2015–2020 Strategy for Strengthening Disability-Inclusive Development in Australia’s Aid Program, frontlines possible opportunities for ASEAN-Australia partnership, to wit: 

  • Supporting governance for equality through the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) 
  • Enabling infrastructure and accessible water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) 
  • Ensuring inclusive education and skills 
  • Building resilience through inclusive humanitarian assistance, disaster risk reduction and social protection. 

One of the approaches used by the Australian Government in forwarding a  disability-inclusive development is through adopting a twin-track approach. Twin-track approach is the marrying of mainstream approaches with targeted approaches. The former means actively involving people with disabilities as co-actors and recipients of development efforts across all sectors while the latter targets people with disabilities in development initiatives designed specifically to benefit them. 

For inclusive development to be true to its nature, it must include and benefit the people in the peripheries, specifically the PWDs. ASEAN member states and the Australian Government can work on knowledge-sharing, continuous diplomatic efforts and aid program investments that will improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in the region. Only when ASEAN citizens with disability experience the benefits of a better life can we say that the ASEAN’s development is indeed in the upsurge and is genuinely inclusive.