Bringing a New Focus to an Old Discussion at the UN

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By Antony Duttine, Handicap International's Rehabilitation Technical Advisor in Global Health

Two years ago I came to the United Nations in New York to attend the High Level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs). My goal was to see disability and rehabilitation included within this topic. I felt like a fish out of water, amid the chaos of the UN General Assembly week. My message was somewhat lost as the meeting overwhelmingly focused on deaths and the prevention of disease. The highlight for me was holding the door for several VIPs, including Ban Ki Moon, as they arrived to open the forum.

Two years later, at the High Level Meeting on Disability and Development, the chaos ensues and I still feel a fish out of water, but I sense a palpable change. Yesterday I attended another NCD event, but this time it was focused on disability and NCDs and I had the privilege of taking a seat on the panel alongside some of those VIPs I opened the door for last time around. Sadly Ban Ki Moon was otherwise disposed, but several other leading lights in the NCD agenda including Sir George Alleyne, UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean region; Denzil Douglas, Prime Minister of St Kitts and Nevis; Carissa Etienne, head of the Pan American Health Organization; and Katie Dain, head of the NCD Alliance. We were also joined by Tom Shakespeare, a well-known figure in the health and disability community.

The discussion could not have been more different than the ones I had had in 2011. “Equitable health services,” “rehabilitation services,” and “universal health coverage” were the words buzzing around the panel. My own contribution was to speak of what I, as a physical therapist, and Handicap International, a disability focused organization, are seeing in the 61 countries where we work. As a result of diabetes, strokes, and other health conditions often thought to be a rich world’s problem, more and more people in the developing world are coming to us with impairments and disabilities.

We still face a huge challenge to get these vital services into the countries where they are needed the most. A lively panel discussion that I attended later in the evening on NCDs brought this brief feeling of euphoria crashing somewhat down to earth. In a more complex world, up against competing priorities, the picture of limited funding is abundantly clear. Mental health was very much overlooked – I had the feeling that it was the elephant in the room in 2011, and today it seems people still aren’t quite sure to address this important topic.

But that reality check didn’t put me off the thought we’ve successfully managed to get NCDs on the disability agenda and with this new body of champions we have the opportunity to make sure disability is brought into the NCD discussions.


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