Why is it important to explicitly reference persons with disabilities in World Bank project documents?

Inclusive project documents that highlight issues of accessibility and inclusion and specifically reference persons with disabilities lay the foundation for projects that can benefit all. We discuss how the World Bank can incorporate persons with disabilities in project design to improve project implementation.

The wording used in World Bank project documents matters. Project design documents lay the foundation for what a project will look like and who a project will specifically target, or potentially leave out. Those individuals/groups explicitly targeted in the project documents will have special accommodations made to ensure they can access project benefits. Those not referenced in project documents will most likely be overlooked because their specific needs have not been addressed, often leading to exclusion. The need for inclusion in project documents is especially important for marginalized populations such as persons with disabilities.

According to the World Bank’s Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) and accompanying Directive on Addressing Risks and Impacts on Disadvantaged or Vulnerable Individuals or Groups, project documents should assess barriers and potential risks that may impact the ability of persons with disabilities to access project benefits and should outline mitigation measures to address these barriers and risks. For this to be successful, it is imperative that these documents explicitly reference persons with disabilities  instead of lumping them into a catch all phrase like “vulnerable.” Referring only to “vulnerable and disadvantaged groups” makes it impossible to understand how persons with disabilities will be specifically impacted by the project, and thus impossible to target specific measures to enable them to access benefits.    

Through BIC’s work with civil society and disabled persons’ organizations (DPOs), we have seen that specific references to persons with disabilities have a profound impact on project design. For example, in a World Bank-financed access to justice project in Peru, initial project documents highlighted “poor and vulnerable populations” but only specifically referenced women and Indigenous Peoples. Persons with disabilities, an often overlooked “vulnerable population,” were not initially mentioned in project design documents. Persons with disabilities face barriers, both physical and environmental, as well as social barriers such as stigma and discrimination, to accessing the justice system and must be included in project design. As a result of advocacy by the disability community, project documents specifically reference persons with disabilities and now the project includes measures addressing accessibility issues for persons with disabilities, including by requiring that rehabilitation or refurbishment of existing facilities adhere to universal accessibility standards.

As the World Bank invests in “Building Back Better” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including and specifically highlighting persons with disabilities in project design documents can help shape inclusive projects and systems moving forward. In COVID-19 health response projects, the Bank references persons with disabilities in many stakeholder engagement plans as a key population to consult with, ultimately highlighting their potential vulnerability to COVID-19 and the need for them to play an essential role in designing solutions to enable them, as well as other marginalized groups, to benefit from these projects. In many countries around the world, schools are closed, overwhelmed health systems are experiencing disruptions in essential services, and public transportation systems are closed or have been scaled back to allow for distancing and safety. Changes to key systems that persons with disabilities rely on present opportunities to reform these systems as they reopen or scale up. The World Bank should focus on inclusive design and implementation from the beginning, designing projects that highlight, prioritize, and provide adequate budget for the needs of persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups.

Specific references to persons with disabilities in project documents represent the first step toward an inclusive project and allows civil society and DPOs to hold the World Bank and implementing governments accountable for implementing the project as outlined in project documents. It also provides for recourse when a project fails to deliver, highlighting the equally important role of inclusive implementation. For example, education projects that specify the barriers to quality education for children and youth with disabilities, such as availability of sign language interpretation at school or accommodations made for children with intellectual disabilities, should provide accommodations to overcome these barriers. It is imperative that project documents highlight the project's impact on persons with disabilities and any necessary mitigation measures for negative impacts. These targeted solutions to enable project benefit must be coupled with engaging persons with disabilities in consultations so that they can work with the Bank and the government to identify how to implement an inclusive project. 

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