Higher Education: The Missing Piece in the UN Resolution for Worldwide Disability Rights

In Everyone has one, Opinion by Guest Contributor

Communications Director for the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program

Communications Director for the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program

As the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) prepares to begin its ninth session April 15 – 19, 2013, are they missing the role that higher education plays in developing social and economic equality?


Risnawati Utami of Indonesia was diagnosed with polio when she was four years old, and spent 13 years in a brace because her family could not afford a wheelchair. Today, she has a master’s degree in International Health Policy and Management from Brandeis University, and works as Program Manager for UCP Wheels for Humanity in Indonesia.


How did Risnawati overcome social, economic, and physical obstacles to become an international advocate for people with disabilities? Along with persistence and a passion for human rights, the answer lies in higher education.


In April the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) will begin its ninth session in Geneva.  One of the UN Resolution’s Guiding Principles is: “Non-discrimination; Full and effective participation and inclusion in society; Equality of Opportunity; and Respect for and Acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity.”


What the Guiding Principles do not point out is that their implementation depends, in large part, on equitable access to advanced study opportunities. Prospective disability rights advocates around the world – would-be lawyers, doctors, scientists, educators, and policy makers – are all too often excluded from higher education not only because of their disabilities, but because they come from marginalized or impoverished communities.


Women with disabilities suffer a ‘double-whammy’ in regions where historical gender roles don’t allow much room for primary school, let alone an advanced degree.  In general, “specially-abled” women and men alike face a double burden, since discrimination based on their physical difference compounds limitations imposed by poverty and other obstacles to educational opportunity.  Access to higher education – much less the possibility of international study – is elusive at best. This is a civil rights issue, not a medical one.


It’s time for fellowship programs, philanthropic organizations, and academic institutions to include more participants with disabilities as a matter of policy.  We can start by defining a new perspective on how to recruit, select, and support students in this category.


First and foremost, applicants should not be considered on the basis of their disability alone; rather, in addition to academic potential, they should be able to demonstrate leadership skills and a commitment to advocate not only on behalf of people living with disabilities, but on behalf of all members of their communities, by working in a range of fields. Fellowship programs can work with local NGOs to design outreach strategies that will generate a pool of inspiring candidates.

Second, individuals with disabilities should be given adequate preparation to improve their language, writing, computer and research skills prior to enrollment.  This is critical for nearly all students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may have significant gaps in their previous education.  Students with disabilities should also receive training in the latest assistive technologies.  Especially for those who study internationally, this training is usually available through student welfare or international student offices.


Executive Director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program

Executive Director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program

At the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP), these approaches have been tremendously successful.  We have worked with partner organizations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Latin America and Russia to help us identify the best, most qualified applicants. We developed country-specific recruitment plans based on a range of criteria that determine unequal access to education, including disability but also poverty, gender, race and ethnicity, and rural origins.


Opening the door to higher education opportunities elicited a tremendous response.  Over 80,000 candidates from 22 countries applied to the program over a ten year period.  Of the more than 4,300 that were selected, fifty percent are women; more than two-thirds come from rural communities; and many are members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities.  Significantly, nearly 175 Fellows have motor disabilities or suffer from visual or hearing impairment or other types of physical disability.


Academically, these Fellows performed as well as their non-disabled counterparts.  They proved unequivocally that pedagogical and architectural barriers to higher education can be successfully overcome.


Their achievements would be impressive for any international student.  Dr. Meenu Bhambhani from India is one of many examples.  Using her IFP fellowship, Meenu received an MA in Disability and Human Development in 2004 from the University of Illinois at Chicago.  In 2010, she received a national award recognizing her contribution as the “Best Individual Working for the Cause of Persons with Disabilities” in her home country.  The award was personally presented to Meenu by the President of India.


As the UN continues to examine ‘specific measures that should be taken for mainstreaming disability at global, regional, and national levels’, we cannot afford to ignore the role of higher education in this effort.

Joan Dassin is Executive Director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP), an innovative 10-year project committed to promoting equitable access to higher education as a path to development and social justice. 212.984.5547.  jdassin-fordifp@iie.org

Rachel Clift is Communications Officer at Ford IFP.  212.984.5529.  rclift-fordifp@iie.org

For more stories of successful IFP Fellows with disabilities, see www.fordifp.org.