There are approximately one billion people worldwide living with disabilities, and by 2050 it is predicted that 66% of the world population will be living in cities. This will undoubtedly mean there will be a significant increase in the number of people with disabilities globally living in cities and needing to access their transport, facilities, and much more. However, many cities do not provide adequate access for people with disabilities. This is a problem for a multitude of reasons, including poor urban planning, lack of awareness of the issue, and a lack of governmental regulation.
Lack of access also contributes to greater prejudice and misunderstanding towards people with disabilities as they become more isolated. This poor environment limits the rest of the population from interacting with people with disabilities. The cost of sidelining people with disabilities is a potential loss of up to 7% of national GDP. It is not only socially but also economically smart to invest in the improvement of accessibility in urban environments and services. This is an important point to make as there remains a gap between the ambitions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, mainstream socio-economic development policy, and practices on the ground.
My personal experience of living in London is that, although the city is much further ahead in accessibility than many other cities globally, there are still many places and services that are inaccessible to me. This still excludes people with disabilities from many aspects of life in the city. For example there is still much of London’s transit system that is inaccessible, making it difficult for people with disabilities to move around the city.
It is also important, as I found on a research trip to South Africa in 2008, to provide greater accessible local and low cost transport from rural areas in order to get important services in nearby cities. For example, one of the parents couldn’t take her child to the city as there was no suitable transport, and therefore had to wait a significantly longer time to access much-need physiotherapy. Meanwhile her child continued to deteriorate physically. While great strides need to be taken to improve our cities we must not forget those who live on their outskirts.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) look to promote accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities in the development of our cities as a precondition for inclusive development, and poverty eradication. We must view accessibility as an investment in a public good that contributes to effective, sustainable, and equitable development for all, and not merely an issue of cost or compliance. Only in this way will we enable persons with disabilities to live independently and to fully participate in all aspects of life. While accessibility is particularly relevant to persons with disabilities, it has implications and benefits for all.
Now that people with disabilities are included in the SDGs, specifically in the goals focusing on education, health and employment, I hope that we will start to see greater progress, that our cities of the future will be truly for us all, and that no one will be left behind.