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Centering Disability Inclusion at World Health Assembly

Centering Disability Inclusion at World Health Assembly

Dr. Katja Pohlmann giving introductory remarks at a World Health Assembly (WHA) side event on disability inclusion
© GIZ / Andreas Zeidler

The global health landscape has long overlooked persons with disabilities, but change is coming. There is a growing recognition that achieving health equity and Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is impossible without including this marginalised group. Pioneers in disability inclusion gathered in Geneva to share experiences, showcase best practices, and inspire new partnerships. The call to action is clear: It’s time to move from awareness to action.

If the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA77) has shown one thing, it is that the world is ready – and the disability community is more than ready – for concrete actions. Three years have passed since the adoption of the landmark resolution on the highest attainable standard of health for persons with disabilities, and momentum is building. During WHA77, leading global health and disability organisations shared innovative practices for disability inclusion and learned from each other’s ideas. The urgency of promoting health equity for persons with disabilities was a unifying theme. While existing partnerships have made important progress, more collaborations are essential to translate words into tangible outcomes.

“It takes a village”: Inclusive and multi-stakeholder action

It is said that it takes a village to bring up a child. This resonated strongly at WHA77. Governments, civil society, philanthropy, and persons with disabilities came together in Geneva to share diverse experiences and perspectives on disability inclusion in health. They are the parents bringing up the WHA resolution.

A highlight at WHA77 was a dialogue funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) about progress and experiences on disability inclusion in health. The event brought together a consortium of organisations including ATscale, the Global Partnership for Assistive Technology, Clinton Health Access Initiative, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, McKinsey Health Institute, Missing Billion Initiative, Reaching the Last Mile, and Special Olympics.

This followed on the heels of an event hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO), together with the Governments of Australia, Bangladesh, and Uruguay, Humanity and Inclusion, International Disability Alliance, International Disability and Development Consortium, and Sightsavers, that focused on the crucial role of political leadership in achieving health equity for persons with disabilities.

Breaking barriers to health equity

Dr. Israel Balogun, a self-advocate and medical doctor with a disability, and Dr. Dimitri Christakis, Chief Health Officer at Special Olympics, highlighted some of the barriers persons with disabilities face in accessing care. They pointed to issues such as disability stigma, inadequate training of health workers, and physical obstacles.

“The attitude of health workers in most developing countries is troubling,” said Dr. Balogun. “We need to change our mindset and professionalise training to respect the rights, voices, and choices of persons with disabilities.” said Dr. Balogun.

These insights echoed remarks from the WHO event – important reminders that persons with disabilities have the same broad range of health needs as those without disabilities. Assistive technology and rehabilitation services, while vital, are not sufficient for achieving health equity for this population. 

Innovative steps towards inclusion

Government representatives from Germany and Indonesia shared their strategies for breaking down barriers to high health standards for persons with disabilities. Dr. Katja Pohlmann, Head of the Global Health Division of BMZ, highlighted that Germany recently introduced the OECD-DAC policy marker for the empowerment and inclusion of persons with disabilities. This important tool, implemented since January 2024, tracks how all new and follow-up development projects reach persons with disabilities.

Dr. Pohlmann also reminded the audience of the opportunities that the next Global Disability Summit – co-hosted by Germany, Jordan, and the International Disability Alliance (IDA) in Berlin in 2025 – offers to raise commitments towards higher health standards for persons with disabilities:

“We need to align our efforts, align on synergies. Disability inclusion is not an act of charity, but it is our responsibility to ensure that “no one is left behind”. The Global Disability Summit is also a way to raise commitments from states, organisations, and companies.”

Nia Reviani, Assistant Deputy for Health Service Improvement of the Coordinating Ministry for Human Development in Indonesia, discussed national efforts, including universal health insurance that addresses the specific needs of persons with disabilities and an early detection program for children under six. She emphasised the critical need for quality data on the health of persons with disabilities to better coordinate political efforts and to identify gaps.

Dr. Christakis presented Special Olympics’ inclusive health initiatives, such as the Rosemary Collaboratory project, which uses a system-level assessment methodology developed by the Missing Billion Initiative. It is being piloted in nine countries worldwide. He urged attendees to capitalise on the current energy around disability-inclusive health to reimagine health systems in a way that aligns financial incentives with desired outcomes, such as health equity.

Tala Ismael Al Ramahi, Chief Strategy Officer of Reaching the Last Mile, spoke about the importance of awareness and visibility in driving action: “When Abu Dhabi hosted the Special Olympics World Games, we realised how stigmatised persons with intellectual disabilities are.” She also emphasised the key role that philanthropy plays in promoting inclusive health. By integrating the needs of persons with disabilities into their networks, philanthropists can ensure comprehensive inclusion.

Maintaining Visibility and Building Momentum

The disability-inclusive health WHA side events sparked rich discussions on issues like disability stigma and its cultural roots. Participants noted the potential of the African Disability Protocol and the promise of community health workers. A representative from the Lwala Community Alliance in Kenya shared that community health workers, with their significant social capital, are crucial in identifying children with disabilities who might be hidden away. Achieving and sustaining health equity for persons with disabilities requires a collective effort – the whole village. Governments can drive policy innovation, while civil society translates these policies into reality at the community level. Dr. Balogun emphasised the importance of inclusion: “Persons with disabilities need to be at the front of the table when decisions are being made.”

Céleste Danos from the Missing Billion Initiative
Co-Author: Anjela Jenkins (Special Olympics)
June 2024

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