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Resident Thinkers

Week 36: 11 May 2012

Tom Shakespeare

Researcher and advocate for disability rights

Launching the world report on disability for Nowhereisland

Transcript of Tom's report

Greetings, Nowhereians!

I am speaking to you from the World Health Organization in Geneva. WHO is the United Nations technical agency for health. We have 194 member states, and our role is to convene, to support, to advise, and to take international action to improve the health of the world. WHO itself has a Constitution which some regard as Utopian: since we began in 1948, our stated goal has been to attain for all people the highest possible level of health, which we define as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

I am part of the team at WHO which works on disability and rehabilitation, and I was one of the authors and editors of the World report on disability, which we launched in New York in 2011, and which we have since launched in more than 30 different countries worldwide: from the Philippines to Finland and from Mynmar to Turkmenistan.  So it’s great to have this opportunity to launch the World report on disability for Nowhereisland.

Because I love the idea of starting from scratch.  The problems which disabled people face are largely to do with how society is constructed, and how people treat us.  So whereas the 194 member states of WHO are going to have to do some modifications to buildings, and some improvements to staff training, and some changes to policy and provision, Nowhere Island can get it right from the start.

A few figures.  If Nowhereisland is like the rest of the world, approximately 15% of the population will have a significant disability.  Almost every Nowhereian family will have a disabled family member.  And as Nowhereians get older, they will be more likely to have a disability: half of all Nowhereians over sixty will be disabled.  Worldwide, there are a billion people with disabilities.  So disability is here to stay, on Nowhere Island as everywhere else.

Nowhereians with disabilities have the same needs as everyone else.  We need healthcare, we need to go to school and we need an equal chance to get a job.  We have lots to offer: some of the most famous and successful people in the world, from Isaac Newton to Winston Churchill and from Emily Dickinson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been disabled.

The trouble is, at present, most countries fail their disabled people.  We are more likely to have poor health, we are more likely to be excluded from school, we are more likely to be excluded from employment, and consequently we and our families are more likely to be poor.  And all this is not an inevitable consequence of having a disability: it is largely the result of how we are treated.

WHO cannot tell Nowhereisland what to do. We only ever advise our Member States. But the World report on disability makes recommendations, which we hope Nowhereians will take note of, just as we hope Nowhere Island will soon join the 112 states who have ratified the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Our first recommendation is to ensure all mainstream services, systems and environments are accessible to people with disabilities.  It is so much better if Nowhereians with disability can go to their ordinary school, and can get on the ordinary buses, and can get ordinary jobs.  If nondisabled people grow up with people with disabilities, and see us in their classrooms and on their public transport and in their workplaces, they are less likely to be ignorant and prejudiced.  It’s cheaper too: for example research shows that making a building accessible from the start costs less than 1% of the total construction costs. Why spend money segregating people when you can get it right from the start?

The second recommendation of the World report on disability is to meet the additional needs of people with disabilities.  We are talking about things like rehabilitation and support and vocational training.  When I became paralysed in 2008, I spent 10 weeks in hospital learning to use the wheelchair and cope as a paraplegic.  Without that additional support, I would not have returned to work, and I would not be speaking to you now. Rehabilitation is a good investment, because it increases independence and allows people with disabilities to go to school and get jobs. But across the world, most people with disabilities do not get the rehabilitation or the wheelchairs or the hearing aids that they need.

I do not intend to bore you with the other recommendations about capacity building, about better data and research and so on.  But I do want to mention a key recommendation, which is to involve people with disabilities in everything that affects us.  For too long, policy has been made on our behalf.  But the global disability movement has a powerful slogan – and Nowhereians with disability will be very familiar with it – “Nothing about us without us”.  WHO consulted widely on the World report on disability, which is why it has been supported and taken up by the International Disability Alliance, the global network of people with disabilities.  We hope that Nowhereisland will similarly listen to your citizens with disabilities.  They have so much to offer.

Thank you for making a good start, by asking me to be a Resident Thinker this week on Nowhereisland.  Thank you for participating in this launch event for the World Report on Disability. Please take the time to check out the summary version of the World report at and think how you can make a difference, wherever and whoever you are.  This is Tom Shakespeare, for the World Health Organization in Geneva, signing off.


Tom Shakespeare

Tom Shakespeare is a researcher and advocate in the field of disability rights, and a part-time writer and performer.  His books include Disability Rights and Wrongs and The Sexual Politics of Disability.  He joined the World  Health Organization in 2008, where he co-authored the World Report on Disability.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.