Urbanization is among the most impactful global trends of the past century, resulting in a growing share of the population living in urban areas. This transformative force impacts both the developed and developing worlds, and it is estimated that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities. This will affect the quality of life for all who choose to live in this environment, but for persons with disabilities, this change presents accessibility challenges that cannot be met without proper cooperation from governments and private industries.
Each year on December 3rd, the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme for this year is ‘Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want;’ the ultimate function of these goals is to create a more inclusive and equitable world for persons with disabilities. There are approximately 1 billion persons with disabilities around the world and for many, urbanization presents unique challenges to daily life. There are many poorly planned and developed cities, which present functional barriers to infrastructure and other physical facilities and services, resulting in a cycle of dependency and general discrimination. These inadequately planned and constructed cities continue to have serious consequences for persons with disabilities, and without greater oversight and regulations the problems will persist.
What is accessibility in the context of persons with disabilities, exactly? Broadly understood, accessibility is about equality of opportunity to access certain places, services, and goods. The United Nations describes it as providing flexibility to accommodate each person’s needs and preferences, meaning individuals must have access to products and services, as well as physical and virtual environments in the manner in which they are capable. This means a ramp into building that is not at ground level, or audiotext functions on websites, among many others. Creating an accessible urban space is not necessarily about providing charity to persons with disabilities, but giving them the tools that enable to live their life independently.
Ultimately, creating accessible cities is crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda. Disability is mentioned eleven times throughout the seventeen goals through references to broad topics such as sustainable growth and the accessibility of human communities, among others. While not referenced in each goal, they are all relevant to persons with disabilities because of the premise on which they were founded: ‘leaving no one behind.’
As it currently stands, many persons with disabilities are being left behind in the growing urban centers around the world. In many of these places, they lack access to public transportation facilities, safe road conditions basic services such as water and sanitation facilities, and appropriate technologies that allow them to communicate with others. To combat the general issue of urbanization, but to also address specific policy-related questions such as the impact it will have on various populations, the UN recently put on a Global Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development. There, the conference reaffirmed the UN’s commitment to persons with disabilities:
“We commit ourselves to promoting appropriate measures in cities and human settlements that facilitate access for persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment of cities, in particular to public spaces, public transport, housing, education and health facilities, public information and communication (including information and communications technologies and systems) and other facilities and services open or provided to the public, in both urban and rural areas.”
This conference was an important start to addressing the critical issue of urbanization and its impact on persons with disabilities. While not a legally binding body, the outcome of this conference was to provide information and guidance as countries move forward with the Sustainable Development Goals. The enforcement mechanism is based primarily through voluntary action as well as various states’ mutual expectation that others will act as they do, serving as a ‘peer pressure’ of sorts. Through bodies like this, the UN is able to monitor progress, and encourage action from other states to provide an urban world consistent with the UN’s overall sustainable goals for the future.
As Christians, we have a duty to ensure that no one is left behind from the world. Disabilities are daily, and arguably, natural occurrences. Oftentimes, they exist without of the person having them, and we are all vulnerable to disability, whether by circumstance, family history, or time. With that in mind, we are reminded that many persons with disabilities are only handicapped when there are barriers in place preventing them from living a full life. “God shows personal favoritism to no man.” (Gal. 2.6). We are called to love one another unconditionally, to look past outward appearances and physical traits, and to find the person inside reflecting Christ because each of us, despite our shortcomings, are made in His image. As the world changes structurally and culturally, we must not forget to make it an accessible place for all.
Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.