Able People, Disabling World: Unequal Access to Water

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Verlyn Leopatra, Jacqueline Noga and Emily Hutcheon, University of Calgary
Guest contributors

This entry is part of a collaborative series on disabilities between the Federation’s Equity Issues Portfolio and the Canadian Disability Studies Association/ Association Canadienne des Études sur l’Incapacité.

At the Ignite Change Now! Global Youth Assembly 2011, hosted by the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights in Edmonton in July, some 500 youth explored the connections between water and an array of national and global issues.

We presented a workshop, “Able People, Disabling World: Water Access Inequality and Disabled Populations” in which we looked at access to clean water and sanitation facilities such as washrooms. The purpose of the workshop was to expand the knowledge of participants on the barriers that impede disabled people from accessing basic human rights such as sanitation and clean drinking water and for participants to walk away with the perspective and skills to confront these inequalities.

The workshop itself was designed around a movie, shot in first person perspective, which followed an individual in the city of Calgary shopping and using the restroom facilities at a local mall. These are activities many individuals partake in without a second thought. However, the individual within our movie was interacting with the world from a wheelchair, allowing participants to experience the numerous challenges which may arise for physically disabled individuals needing to use the sanitation facilities.

One of us (Verlyn Leopatra, the lead person on this project) produced the video covering the experience of the world of water and sanitation through the eyes of a disabled person and the barriers disabled person may face in everyday life. We (Emily and Jacqueline) produced background material for the workshop, some of which we have incorporated in this blog. From this video we conducted various breakout sessions (including brainstorming sessions and leadership activities). The aim was to provide our participants with the tools to enact change within their communities. Additionally, in an effort to expose our participants to water and sanitation issues faced by disabled populations in low income counties, we embedded as one example a short video clip from WaterAid (with permission) – that depicted water and sanitation barriers faced by disabled people in Bangladesh – into our video.

Most workshop participants were interested in, or already passionate about, the issues which impact the differently-abled. Some participants spoke from personal experience such as, for example, having a differently-abled individual in the family.  Others spoke from professional experiences, such as working with differently-abled youth. Yet, the primary reaction to the first-person account and to the breakout sessions was surprise, particularly when activities revealed a lack of accessibility not only in low-income countries, but also in Canada and other high-income countries. Participants more readily assumed that disabled people in low-income countries experienced a lack of access to clean water and sanitation because of poverty, conflict or other factors. Participants were aghast and disappointed by the lack of accessibility seen in the videos, for high- and low-income countries alike.

Participant reactions to the workshop were not too surprising to us, given our own experiences. In planning the workshop and filming the video we became aware of the inaccessibility of our city’s local shopping mall washrooms. Many of the potential access barriers captured in our video were things we’d previously overlooked, and only realized when we tried to adopt a physically disabled person’s perspective. This shared learning between the participants and ourselves allowed us to connect with, and discuss, water access inequality issues, and to collectively reveal the exclusion inherent in the social world around us.

Human rights and access to water and sanitation
During our workshop we provided background on discourses around water and sanitation. The 2002 general comments number 15of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Right states:

“The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. An adequate amount of safe water is necessary to prevent death from dehydration, reduce the risk of water-related disease and provide for consumption, cooking, personal and domestic hygienic requirements”.

In July 2010 the Sixty-fourth General Assembly Plenary 108th Meeting (AM) adopted a resolution,  which recognized access to clean water [and] to sanitation as a universal human right. The General Assembly resolution called “on States and international organizations to provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, in scaling up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”

The resolution further highlighted the magnitude of the problem of access to clean water and sanitation and some of the consequences: “deeply concerned that approximately 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water and that more than 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation, and alarmed that approximately 1.5 million children under 5 years of age die and 443 million school days are lost each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases.”

The World Water Council links the right to water to other human rights such as the right to life, food, self-determination, adequate standard of living, housing, education and the right to take part in cultural life. The importance of water is also highlighted in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Goal Seven Target 10 of the MDGs calls on the international community to: “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”

Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is also important in the Canadian context especially as it pertains to First Nations communities across Canada. A June 2011 Auditor General report stated that social wellbeing conditions for First Nations communities over the past decade were getting worse, not better, including in the area of access to basic needs such as clean water and sanitation: “Continuing problems include a growing housing shortage, mould in the housing that is there, [and] access to safe drinking water.”

The Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council identified the environment as a priority area in 2001. SSHRC funds many projects related to the environment including water issues. Other research competitions can also highlight water as an important national and global priority. However, in Canada, there is inadequate research on water and sanitation as it relates to people with disabilities who, as our research and workshop indicates, face problems of water and sanitation access.

Now, we would like to invite you to watch the movie from our workshop, which has been split into two YouTube videos. Part One of the video showcases some of the water and sanitation access inequality issues faced by disabled people in high-income nations such as Canada. Part One also introduces some of the concepts and frameworks from which we explored this topic and ends with the first half of our interview with Dr. Gregor Wolbring, a disability studies scholar at the University of Calgary.

Part 1: Able People Disabling World: Water Access Inequality and Disabled Populations:

Part Two of the video picks up with the second half of our interview with Dr. Gregor Wolbring, an interview that explores his experiences with water and sanitation as well as a discussion of the concept of Ableism. Part Two ends with a look at the water access and sanitation problems faced by differently abled populations in low-income countries. Throughout Part One and Part Two various questions and activities are presented to assist viewers in understanding and connecting the various ideas and themes.

Part 2: Able People Disabling World: Water Access Inequality and Disabled Populations:

People with disabilities and access to water and sanitation
Our research makes clear that access to drinkable water and sanitation is an important issue for people with disabilities. The UN Convention on the right of persons with disabilities (Article 28) endeavours to “ensure equal access by persons with disabilities to clean water services, and to ensure access to appropriate and affordable services, devices and other assistance for disability-related needs.”

People with disabilities face a multitude of physical and social barriers in their day-to-day lives that prevent them from obtaining drinkable water and basic sanitation. Some of the growing body of research on these barriers has been documented in a literature review and other documents compiled as part of the “Water supply and sanitation for disabled people and other vulnerable groups” by the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) project at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.

A briefing note on “Including disabled people in sanitation and hygiene services,” produced by the SHARE Consortium and the organization WaterAid states:

“The barriers that disabled people face when using sanitation facilities have been categorised as environmental (such as steps and narrow doors), institutional (such as a lack of information from authorities and exclusion from consultative procedures) and attitudinal (such as prejudicial attitudes from the community and service providers).”

The reality is that many policy documents, at the national and international level, including the various editions of the United Nations World Water Development Report, do not cover people with disabilities despite highlighting other marginalized groups. Yet, the SHARE Consortium and Water Aid briefing notes states that, “There are many small scale examples of good practice in making sanitation and hygiene accessible to disabled people in low-income countries.”  Many of these good practices can be found at WEDC and WaterAid web sites.

The SHARE Consortium and Water Aid briefing notes also highlight key research priorities and suggested action. It begins with the suggestion to “synthesise existing literature on the sanitation and hygiene needs of disabled people, the impact of inadequate facilities in the household and at school, as well as the challenges that disabled people face in relation to sanitation and hygiene.”  Moreover, the briefing notes call upon researchers and practitioners  to, “Evaluate interventions designed to benefit disabled people within mainstream sanitation approaches, such as Community Led Total Sanitation, to document good practice,” and the need for more “in-depth quantitative and qualitative research with disabled people, their families and communities.” As well, guidelines have to be developed regarding baseline questions, indicators and outputs for inclusion within  national and international monitoring and evaluation mechanisms; and “cost benefit analyses of improving access to sanitation and hygiene services for disabled people, and of not taking action” is needed.  

Some Concluding Remarks
Despite the research on what needs to be done, the 2011 Millennium Development Goals Report states, “we are failing to reach the most vulnerable,” a group that includes people with disabilities. The issue of access to clean water and sanitation facilities, such as washrooms, is as important for people with disabilities as it is for so called non-disabled people. Some projects are under way in low-income and high-income countries to rectify the problems for people with disabilities. Some try to use the knowledge of the best practices that exist within the disability community, however efforts have to increase.

Access needs have to be made more visible in global policy reports such as the World Water Report, and the expertise of people with disabilities must be used through direct consultation and engagement. In high-income countries such as Canada building codes exist that are suppose to guarantee access to clean water and sanitation facilities. However, the extent to which such codes are enforced is inconsistent, as demonstrated by the variability in facility access documented in the video.

There is need for more equity and accessibility audits of the realities faced by persons with disabilities and the best practices to address their needs. University of British Columbia students did such audit of their campuses with surprising results. The Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities performs accessibility audits, according to a pre-established audit tool, to gather information about the accessibility of places. We think audits should be used more widely and results acted upon.

As highlighted in our workshop and review of some of the global reports, non-access to clean water and sanitation is detrimental to people everywhere and is a pressing issue of concern for everyone including people with disabilities. As such we believe water and sanitation is as an area in need of public, policy and academic engagement. This is an area that needs to be addressed through inter- and trans-disciplinary collaborations with disability studies scholars and people with disabilities do as to make better use of their knowledge and experiences.

Verlyn Leopatra is a Bachelor of Health Science student, Emily Hutcheon is in the Masters in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies Program, and Jacqueline Noga is a Bachelor of Health Science student at the University of Calgary.  



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