Nicola Harrington
Ms Nicola Harrington-Buhay, UNV Deputy Executive Coordinator for Volunteer Mobilization and Programme.

The one billion count! Unlocking the potential of people living with disabilities

Tucked away in an annex to the world's plan to end poverty, save the planet and ensure human rights for everyone - the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 - lies its most powerful phrase: "And we shall endeavor to help those farthest behind first". This concept is more radical than it first appears. Try explaining to a politician running for election that it's in her interests to focus on the minority first.

For UN development practitioners, whilst we are firm proponents of the indivisibility of all rights for all peoples at all times, rarely do we get the opportunity to start with those farthest behind or get to scale.

Yet 193 world leaders committed to this. Being "farthest behind" is of course relative. Even the most advanced democracies have unfinished business to deliver equality of opportunity to everyone. This was beautifully illustrated last year by women in Europe threatening to stop work for the year on 8th November, to draw political attention to persistent gender pay gaps.

The last two and a half decades witnessed enormous advances specifically in the rights of minorities. Outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon leaves a rich legacy of championing lesbian, gay and transgender rights both globally and within the UN. The visionary Peter Piot convinced the world that HIV/AIDS could be eradicated and that those already infected with the virus had the right to be treated. His leadership, combined with powerful civil society activism, broke through the obstacles to make anti-retro viral medicines available to several million people. With the development of an ever richer body of international law, attitudes such as "society isn't ready" can more readily be challenged with "Mme Speaker, since your country is party to the Convention, how can we help you change that?".

But what happened to disability rights? The pathbreaking 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities got off to a flying start, being the first UN Convention jointly developed by governments and disability groups. Yet despite constituting an estimated 15% of the world's population, and notwithstanding the determined efforts of several entities, it remains disappointingly (shockingly) rare to see people with a self-declared disability in the workplace.

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme wants to change that. I have set as a personal goal for my tenure as a Deputy head of the Agency, to work with our 33 UN partner entities in order to embed meaningful onsite placements for [...] UN Volunteers with disabilities. What do they do? Well, it depends: as with any large group of professionals, would-be volunteers with disabilities have backgrounds and preferences unique to the individual. Several cannot meet UNV requirements of a master's education and several years of work experience, through lack of opportunity due to their disability. Selection criteria thus emphasize potential, perseverance, commitment to work with communities and local disability groups, as well as commitment to the values of volunteering as a means of transformational change for good.

What will it take for UN Volunteers to achieve my admittedly ambitious goal? Honestly - we don't know. But we are determined to learn. An internal organization-wide "Enabling Excellence Team" mirrors our well-established Gender Action Team in analyzing, proposing and acting upon the several queries, options and corporate modifications that are coming thick and fast as we plan the deployment of our first international UN Volunteer with disabilities, and negotiate several more deployments with partners.

The courageous lady currently preparing to cross continents and overcome (sign)language barriers will tell her own story as UNV's first onsite volunteer with a self-declared disability, joining other volunteers with disabilities already active on our UNV Online Volunteering service. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step - well, she represents UNV's own first step.

'End polio' has taken the best part of 30 years. 'End stigma' can surely be faster.

Nicola Harrington-Buhay, Deputy Executive Coordinator for Volunteer Mobilization and Programme, is an expert in human rights, development and public administration. Having worked with the Bank of England, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations, in four continents, she is a firm believer in the value of Volunteering as a means to leverage relevant knowledge wherever it sits - and to reach the farthest behind.

Bonn, Germany