Lynne Featherstone writes … My visit to Uganda: “Disability is not inability”

Lynne Featherstone in UgandaMore than one billion people worldwide – that’s 1 in 7 people – live with a disability. And last year’s Paralympics reminded us that people with disabilities can achieve incredible feats. But for every disabled person celebrated for their achievements, there are millions more in the developing world who are treated as sub-human, hidden from view and forgotten. They are the great neglect in international development and I am determined to right this wrong.

Last week, UK Paralympic wheelchair basketball star Ade Adepitan travelled with me to Uganda with to see how that country is turning around attitudes to disability and to see the work of organisations that provide training, livelihoods and education programmes for disabled people.

What we saw was remarkable. Uganda has taken a lead in Africa in protecting and promoting the rights of disabled people, enshrining disability rights in legislation, securing specific representation in parliament and also through a strong disability movement.

But there is a long way to go yet. While Uganda is progressive on disability rights, many of the 5 million plus people with disabilities face extraordinary adversity, discrimination and exclusion and are much more likely to live in extreme poverty. There is still a deeply rooted negative culture and a disabled child is seen as a curse – more so if the child is a girl. That girl is much more likely to be denied food, an education, health care and ultimately her future.

I know some people here at home have criticised my visit to Uganda. Some have argued that I should boycott governments that criminalise homosexuality. Let me be clear. I am a gay rights campaigner, liberal to the core and this is hardly a secret. All anyone has to do is Google my name and up comes ‘Lynne Featherstone and same sex marriage’. And wherever I go, I do always raise LGBT rights when meeting with foreign governments and I try to do so in a way that empowers local campaigners on the ground.

Some people have also questioned why I’m focused on the rights of disabled people abroad when there is more to do on disability rights at home. There is indeed more to do here in the UK. But the issues faced by disabled people in the developing world are staggering.  And when a disabled child is hidden by his parents, ostracised by his community and mobile only by crawling on the ground because his family is too poor to get him a wheelchair, I don’t think DFID should leave that child behind.

Right now is a moment in history to focus attention on the needs of disabled people worldwide. The Millennium Development Goals, so crucial over the last 13 years for targeting aid work on issues like maternal mortality, expire in 2015 and now is the time to ensure the post-2015 framework specifically recognises the needs of disabled people. Momentum is building. This year’s United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York saw the biggest disability rights meeting in five years, putting disability rights back on the international agenda. And the central concept underpinning the draft post-2015 framework is “leave no one behind”.

The aid community – multilateral institutions like the World Bank and NGOs like Oxfam and Save the Children – need to follow suit, making sure they are doing everything possible to make their programmes work for the most vulnerable. And DFID will do the same. That’s why I announced last month at the UN General Assembly that from now on any school built with DFID funds will be fully accessible for disabled children.

The simple fact of the matter is you cannot tackle extreme poverty without addressing the needs of disabled people. International development should not leave anyone behind and I’ll make sure DFID ups its efforts and prioritises this critical issue.


* Lynne Featherstone was the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green from 2005 to 2015, and served as a minister in both the Home Office and Department for International Development. She is now a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and blogs at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Richard Dean 29th Oct '13 - 11:16pm

    Well done, Lynne.

    Equality for disabled persons is one of the biggest issue in the world today, equality for women being another, and childcare being a third. Achieving these objectives is likely to free people’s energies and compassions in a way that will lead to many other issues being resolved much easier than otherwise.

    But there’s a long long way to go!

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