Universal design ensures that our shared environment, within homes, classrooms, workplaces, and communities, is built in a way that is usable for all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability. It promotes the inclusion of persons with disabilities, enabling them to enjoy their independence and participate equally in society, and in turn, creates a space where everyone benefits. Universal design is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the central principle of the Goals – “Leave No One Behind.”
However, accessibility remains a major challenge in Lao PDR, affecting the lives of more than 160,000 persons with disabilities and reinforcing their dependence on families and friends on a daily basis. Without accessible buildings, transport, and public spaces that have embraced universal design, persons with disabilities across the country are unable to connect socially, receive essential health and rehabilitation services, study, and seek employment. This leads to the exacerbation of their health conditions and severity of a disability, illiteracy, lack of education, and even extreme poverty.
The United Nations (UN) House on Lang Xang Avenue was built in 2008. Today, under its roof, there are 11 UN specialized agencies, including UNDP, working together to end persistent poverty, protect the environment and take action on climate change, ensure that all people in Lao PDR can participate in society, and contribute to its continued development. This joint UN commitment to the 2030 Agenda is reflected in 18 SDGs plates at the UN House entrance. But does the design of the UN building leave no one behind?
For me, as a person with a physical disability, it was reassuring to know that my new workplace in UNDP had considered the importance of an inclusive and accessible environment. Many people may not notice the small adjustments that can impact one’s mobility, comfort, and independence around the office, but the designated parking slot, visible ramp, and the disability-friendly restroom significantly helped me to integrate into my new working environment. Elevators have also been installed to assist people in moving between the floors, and there are wheelchair-accessible pathways throughout the building.
Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement to ensure that the UN building complies with the universal design standards for “one and all”, considering the many different types of disabilities that affect our visitors, partners, or colleagues. Some of these modifications were recently recommended in an Accessibility Audit undertaken by the Lao Disabled People’s Association. Installation of braille signage, tactile paving, and sound signal in elevators could enable navigation of persons with visual impairments throughout the UN House. Adjustment of the font size, color contrast, and images of the signage could help those with difficulty in reading use our facilities. And finally, with the installation of handrails on both sides of the stairs and improving wheelchair accessibility to the UN Clinic, we can ensure that people with mobility difficulties can access all areas of the UNDP workplace safely. Despite the widespread myth and fear, these modifications are inexpensive and easy to make.
Yet, to have truly inclusive workplaces in Lao PDR, organizations must go beyond the physical adjustments and consider changing norms and practices that may also exclude persons with disabilities from being employed and achieving their full potential. UNDP has recently embarked on improving its commitment to an inclusive workplace and learning environment, recognizing that a diverse team is essential to solving the diverse development challenges in the country. Our office is reflecting on its information sharing practices and communications products and even developing new ways of holding meetings and events to ensure they are accessible for persons with different types of disabilities. UNDP job and procurement announcements now include a UN “Non-Discrimination” statement and commitment to accessible selection processes, which ensure that people from diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and viewpoints, particularly people living with disabilities, can join the UNDP team.
Drawing on the mantra of the global Disability Rights Movement, “Nothing about us without us,” this year, UNDP welcomed two new colleagues with disabilities, Ms. Bounchanh Oudom and myself, to accelerate change on disability inclusion across different sectors in Lao PDR, as well as to guide UNDP in changing its own practices, staff awareness, and even office design. As is often the case, we must look at how we can change ourselves so that we can then change the world.
24 October marks the 76th Anniversary of the UN and its founding document, the UN Charter, which affirms the dignity and worth of every human being everywhere. Securing the rights of persons with disabilities is essential for upholding the values and principles of the UN Charter. UNDP is committed to ensuring that all persons with disabilities in Lao PDR are valued, their dignity and rights are respected, and that, in the UNDP workplace, they find an empowering environment in which to fully speak up on an equal basis with others.
We have a long way to go and change to embrace for delivering this commitment. And we will start this journey of transformation from inside of the UN House walls.
Ms. Seevue Xaykia, Disability Inclusion Officer, UNDP Lao PDR
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.