Stairwells, street crossings, uneven sidewalks, narrow doorways, small bathrooms, signing a lease… For many of us, none of these are major challenges. But for those whose movements depend on a wheelchair and those who live with a visual impairment or a mental disability, these minor inconveniences can quickly become insurmountable barriers and impede their access to all kinds of basic services, jobs, education and culture. Effectively, for them, these our slight urban nuisances can all effectively become the vectors of their social exclusion.

Today, we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2016, an opportunity to take stock of the policies and practices of our countries and cities towards generalized accessibility.

According to the World Report on Disability, co-published in 2011 by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, more than one billion people across the planet experience a disability, 80 per cent of whom live in a developing country. Persons with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the poorest quintile of the world’s population. Overall, they have poorer health, lower education achievements, and fewer economic opportunities.

Accessibility is one of the seven requirements that define adequate housing as described in international legal instruments. Yet, persons with disabilities continue to face daily challenges largely caused by stigmatization – which can lead to difficulties obtaining loans or signing leases –, discriminatory laws and policies, environmental barriers, and insufficient access to support services that impede their enjoyment of human rights.

For inclusive cities and the realization of the right to adequate housing for all, national and city governments must adopt and enforce non-discriminatory policies in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ensure the collection of disability-disaggregated data for proper evidence-based policies and programmes, facilitate access to economic resources and opportunities, and adopt adequate building codes.

Over the past few years, a lot has been done across the board to improve overall accessibility in our cities, both in developed and developing nations, though much remains to be improved. As part of the Human Rights-based approach to development that the UN advocates for, UN-Habitat and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights co-released a publication titled ‘The Right to Adequate Housing for Persons with Disabilities Living in Cities’. Released in 2015, it presents comprehensively the challenges faced by those living and proposes concrete policy recommendations for States, local governments and other stakeholders determined to make a difference in this area.

In 2014, a handbook titled ‘Accessibility of Housing’ was also published by UN-Habitat documenting affordable housing solutions from the design and construction perspective for persons with disabilities and older persons.

It is encouraging to note that the global conversation on accessibility in our cities is increasingly taking place on major international stages. Last year, a three-day Forum on Disability Inclusion and Accessible Urban Development was organized by the UN and released key recommendations to be included in the New Urban Agenda (NUA)which was adopted this past October during the Habitat III Conference;  in its final version, the NUA directly refers to the need for measures to promote inclusion of persons with disabilities, non-discrimination and improved accessibility in 38 articles.

These are all strong signals of a renewed global awareness on the urgent need to make housing, transportation, and public spaces inclusive and accessible for all. They hold the promise that, one day, persons with mental and physical impairments will systematically be taken into account in urban development and access to adequate housing across the world.