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Progress and Barriers to Disability Policy at the United Nations

⌚ Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Kirsty Stage

PhD Candidate, Faculty of History, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge and the British Library

Drawing from her experience as a United Nations Delegate for the Commission on the Status of Women, University of Cambridge and British Library PhD candidate, Kirstie Stage reflects on the progress and barriers to developing disability policy in national and international settings. The blog explores the importance of building communities and the interconnectedness of disability policy with other realms, and offers insights into how greater inclusivity can be achieved.

Representing the National Council for Women of Great Britain

With a CAPE-funded travel grant, provided through the Centre for Science and Policy, and funding from Christ’s College Cambridge, I was delighted to represent the National Council of Women of Great Britain in New York as a United Nations Delegate for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Since 1946, CSW has acted as the ‘principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women’ via the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

During the 67th Session, the priority theme was ‘Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls’. In addition, the review theme explored ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls (agreed conclusions of the sixty-second session)’. Given my lived experiences as a disabled woman and my academic interest in disability history, this blog focuses on the progress and barriers to developing disability policy in national and international settings. Drawing on my experiences at the United Nations, I reflect upon some of the changes that need to happen in engagement, attitudes, and outcomes.

Building communities creates spaces to share experiences

Building informal communities of individuals and organisations who are working in or interested in the disability and gender space creates space for disabled people to share experiences, raise awareness of different policy issues, and contribute to lobbying efforts within UN processes. Globally, very few organisations focus on this vital intersection, and events hosted at CSW67 was not an exception to this. This year, many of the discussions orchestrated at the United Nations were initiated by two main disabled-led organisations Women Enabled and Women With Disabilities Australia. Sharing experiences and insights into the issues faced by disabled women and folx opened a space for troubleshooting, creative solutions, and future recommendations. During a meeting with Annika Ojala, an international human rights advocate, and Katrin Langensiepen, the only female MEP with a visible disability in the European Parliament, I was reminded about how many issues facing different communities overlap. For example, migrant women and disabled women may face similar challenges in accessing health care, such as not being able to locate relevant health services, feel comfortable in physical spaces, interact with medical professionals, understand associated information, and go through bureaucratic processes for a medical appointment. Ultimately, there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to disability; policy must accommodate for the multiple experiences as well as recognise the multi-faceted layers of identity.

Disability policy should not happen in isolation

Disability should not be a topic only raised in disability policy silos. Instead, disability should be recognised as a rich and complex category that provides a more connected and holistic approach to policymaking. As a result, we can recognise how different spheres of policy interact and affect one another. For example, the disproportionate under-employment or unemployment of disabled people can be understood through examining the intersection between policy in transport, housing, and employment. By speaking directly to people who have experienced this situation, different issues may arise that exist in this intersection. One discussion explored how public transport may be inaccessible (for example, public transport may not have enough wheelchair spaces, nor have audio and/or visual indicators before, during or after the journey). Thus, travel to get to and from work from the person’s accommodation may not be impossible or may be available only at an additional cost that is not financially viable. Location also remains an important factor in this policy discussion: accessible or adaptive housing may only be found in specific regions or boroughs, making it harder to consider employment opportunities or public transport in the first instance. Acknowledging the broader landscape and interconnecting policy issues provides a more comprehensive approach to dealing with major challenges facing many in the disability community.  

Access must be an initial thought not an afterthought

In policy spaces, a vital question that I ask myself is who is missing from the room? During CSW67, this was a regular thought, especially in relation to disability. Of course, there are many demographics that are still under-represented, including sign language users, rural groups, people of colour, indigenous communities, and LGBTQIA+ people. Disability was no exception to this and in of itself captures a large array of people, including people with invisible conditions and/or chronic illness. Nonetheless, the consideration of disability and associated topics remained overlooked. In this process, policy discussions are limited in reflecting the views and experiences of a large proportion of the global populace. According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization (March 2023), an estimated 1.3 billion people experience disability globally, with this figure estimating 1 in 6 of the world’s population. When meeting the UK’s parliamentary delegation, I addressed this pivotal topic of access, highlighting examples of barriers such as travel companies breaking wheelchairs; additional financial costs for personal assistants and necessary accessibility support; few physical environments having appropriate equipment nor infrastructure; the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the implications that continue today. By kind invitation to speak on a panel hosted by the Associated Country Women of the World, I spoke further about the barriers to access. Key themes on the topic of access included connectivity, digital inclusion, technological innovation, the need for disaggregated data, and grassroots action, for and led by, communities. Policy is meaningless and limited in its capacity if access has not been thoroughly considered. For example, Sisters of Frida have created useful handbooks outlining examples of best practice for meetings or events as well as accessible online communication. Acknowledging issues that are seldom discussed, addressing access barriers, and questioning who is at present excluded from dialogue must be at the forefront to developing more comprehensive, inclusive and meaningful policy.


CSW67 has been a rich opportunity to address the progress and barriers to disability policy at the United Nations. Even though CSW67 offered chances for disabled women and folx to share their lived experiences, unique perspectives and issues were very often overlooked in formal negotiations and broader policy discussions. Much can be learnt from transnational work as policymakers can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different policy approaches in individual member states. Disability policy should not happen in isolation from other dialogues, including foreign affairs, climate crisis, cyber issues, and economic trade. While there is much further to go in terms of accessibility and representation, it has been great to see stronger language in the CSW67’s Agreed Conclusions related to issues affecting disabled women and girls.