Alexandra Palace Station to become accessible for all

Lynne Featherstone MP with Baroness Kramer, a representative from Great Northern rail, and Haringey Lib Dem deputy leader, Cllr Gail Engert, at Alexandra Palace station.Lynne Featherstone MP joined Baroness Kramer from the Department for Transport at Alexandra Palace station this morning, to formally announce extra funding for the ‘Access for All’ programme.

The programme – which was given a £60 million boost in the Coalition Government’s Autumn Statement – will allow for work to go ahead on Alexandra Palace station to make it step-free and accessible for everyone by 2019 at the latest.

The Liberal Democrat MP welcomed the announcement as a step towards building a fairer society, where all residents can access rail services.

Along with over 750 local residents – Lynne Featherstone MP has long campaigned for more accessible local stations – and the announcement marks a success in the campaign.

Lynne Featherstone MP commented:

“As a Liberal Democrat, I believe in creating a fairer society. And in a fair society, rail services should be accessible for everyone – including the elderly, the disabled, and those with heavy bags or pushchairs.

“That’s why I started a campaign for more accessible local stations. I’m so happy that over 750 local residents signed up to support the campaign, and that we’ve been successful in securing the extra funding for improvements at Alexandra Palace.

“Of course, there are a number of other local stations – both rail and underground – which also need improvements. But this is a great step in the right direction, and hopefully a sign of more to come.”

Disability not inability

This was the clear cry from the many wonderful and inspiring young people we met at the St. Francis school for the blind in Soroti, Uganda.

Run with help from Britain through the International Inspiration programme, the school is dedicated to giving blind or partially sighted children the skills and opportunity they need to thrive. From cricket to braille reading, the wall in Sister Winifred the headmistress’s office is decorated with an array of academic and sporting trophies. The school embodies the simple mantra that every child is different – and that they should adapt to each individual.

Part of the UK’s Olympic and Paralympic legacy programme and backed by the British Government, International Inspiration is providing vital support to keep the school running. Alongside it’s sister primary school, it is one of the only dedicated schools for the blind in Uganda.

There is no doubt that they are making a tremendous difference to pupils lives. Children have the chance to learn a wide range of academic and life skills. alongside classrooms with braille machines, the children run a turkey farm and grow a range of vegetables. They even sell the turkey eggs for small profit. There is no doubt that their entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well – we were sold and bought the whole batch!

The school provides hope and a head start in life, but it was clear the challenges that remain. They have a recently installed computer lab, but they lack the software that automatically read out text. If you are reading this blog with similar software, you’ll understand how vital it is.

The children also said they were worried about their future when they leave school. They are well aware that the fantastic support, encouragement and equipment – such as  braille machines which they have learnt to master so well – are not widely available outside school. Few businesses recognise the incentive or benefit to make changes and adaptations. They are missing a huge untapped resource.

The children were clear about huge social mountain they need to climb. It was heart-wrentching to hear a group of girls describe the daily suspicion and insults their mothers face – everything from being branded a witch, demon or outcast. It is truly saddening that such talented and remarkable children know how hard it is for them to be accepted by the rest of society.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Education which is tailored to their needs will give them a chance in life. St. Francis school, with help from Britain, is giving them the skills they need to succeed. But social change takes time. The children we met today have the ability to become Uganda’s next politicians, entrepreneurs or entertainers. In one of the school’s bright classrooms, a boy stood up to address us from behind his Braille machine. He told us how worried he was for his future after school and how difficult it will be for him to get a job. Confident and clearly spoken, he told us how many villagers at home would prefer disabled people to stay at home rather than find employment. They simply cannot accept that disabled people have a valuable contribution to make. I asked him what he wants to do when he finishes school. The answer? A politician. I think that is just what Uganda – and the rest of the world – needs. I wish him the very best of luck.

In the meantime, we must do more to change attitudes and provide a lifeline to disabled people. Earlier in the day we’d seen how a successful safety net programme is giving disabled and vulnerable people in Kaberamaido the chance to escape destitution. Unable to work as much as other members of the community, they can claim a tiny monthly payment to keep their families fed and clothed. This safety and security allows them to create a better life for their families. One women –  unable to walk without her rudimentary walking stick – described how she had to support seven members of her family. The payments gave her the chance to invest in seeds to grow. She now has more food and the chance to sell some on for a profit. Her family now have enough to eat and her community can see how productive she can be. none of this would be possible without this support.

Change can happen. Disabled people can contribute to their community and their economy. Education can give them the chance to build a better life and fight social stigma. We must wake up this fact and help create more schools that allow every child to thrive. In the meantime, we must ensure we target our aid towards the poorest and most vulnerable. From what I have seen, I have no doubt that this can make a tremendous difference to the lives of countless disabled people in countries like Uganda.

Disability and development in Uganda

Today is the first day of my visit to meet disabled people in Uganda.

Disability is the great neglected issue in development. I am here to learn how we can make a greater difference on the ground.

I am extremely grateful to UK paralympic star Ade Adepitan for taking the time to join us on this trip. I wanted his unique perspective and understanding about the daily challenges faced by disabled people at home and abroad.

Our first stop was a state school at the side of a dusty, rural road. 901 children attend classes there everyday. With only 14 extremely dedicated teachers, class sizes are large and teachers’ time is very stretched.

There are five million disabled people in Uganda, so it came as no surprise that there are many children at this school who also live with a disability.

We heard some truly inspiring stories – like Dorothy, a blind girl whose father carries her two and a half kilometres to school and back everyday to make sure she has an education.

Half way through the visit, the skies began to pour. A handful of children quickly huddled in one of the school’s small, dark classrooms. The rain on tin roof made it almost impossible to hear what anyone was saying. This would be a challenging place to teach one child even without a disability. Here they were teaching scores of children in each classroom.

Water Aid, a charity supported by Britain’s own development budget, is helping to improve school facilities. We saw a ‘inclusive toilet’ which is especially designed to ensure disabled children have the facilities they need to go to school in the first place.

We then moved to Bobole village – a tiny settlement at the end of a rutted and muddy track. We met Margaret, a disabled women living in an improvised wheelchair. She makes a living from a specially adapted sewing machine which she turns with her hands.

With WaterAid’s support, she has her own accessible toilet and washing facilities. Despite its simple construction from local wood and leaves, it is giving Margaret the dignity and opportunity to thrive. They have also constructed a water butt to catch rain water to help water her crops. The only other option is a bore hole far from her village – a virtual impossibility in her wheelchair.

Despite these inspiring stories of determination and spirit, the challenge in my mind is clear.

Simple changes and alterations can make a tremendous difference and ensure every one has the chance to succeed. we need to do much more to identify these and ensure all our aid programmes prioritise them.

Tomorrow I will update you on the next trip.

"It’s easy to miss the invisible…"

Those words – from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Disabilities, Shuaib Chalklen – have stuck with me today on my second and final day at the UN General Assembly.

He said them during a meeting at which I was trying to establish what more the UK could do to improve the lives of people with disabilities in the poorest parts of the world.

We are driving disability up the agenda, initially focusing on improving data and evidence with a new commitment on making schools that are directly funded by the Department for International Development inclusive.

But I am keen to learn what others are doing, share lessons and work together on this important issue. That’s why  I also had a very interesting meeting with USAID’s disability coordinator Charlotte McClain- Nhlapo and heard more about what the US Government  are doing to ensure their development work includes people with disabilities.

But those words – “it’s easy to miss the invisible” – apply to so many groups of vulnerable people around the world, including the LGBT community.

Earlier yesterday I attended a meeting of public and private donors supporting LGBT issues hosted by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, USAID and the Ford Foundation.

It was my opportunity to demonstrate my – and the UK’s – commitment to  LGBT  rights and hear what others are doing. But most importantly, I was able to meet others who feel as passionately about the issues of equality as I do and work with them to tackle exclusion and violence against LGBT people around the world.

The UK will help tackle the great neglect of disability

Here’s a further blog from the UN General Assembly in New York, also available on the Huffington Post

The biggest disability rights meeting in five years takes place in New York this week as part of the United Nations General Assembly. People with disabilities have long been the forgotten people when it comes to overseas development. This is a landmark opportunity to give them a voice and put their needs centre stage.

More than one billion people worldwide live with disability and suffer huge discrimination as a result. They face unequal access to education, employment, healthcare, social support and the justice system. Consequently, they are disproportionately some of the poorest and most marginalised people in the world – part of an unseen great neglect.

The internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have done a great deal to address global poverty, but the gap where improving the lives of people with disabilities should have been has hindered progress. Thirteen years after the MDGs were agreed, disability remains the poor relation amongst development goals.

This isn’t good enough. People with a disability face specific day-to-day challenges that the rest of us don’t. They need tailored measures, such as providing school texts in braille. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for them. It is telling that of the 57million children currently out of school in the world today, over a third have a disability.

That’s why I’m announcing this week that the Department for International Development will help address this by ensuring that from this day forward, all of the school construction we directly support is designed to allow disability access. This means building schools with easily accessible entry points, wide entry doors, wide aisles, and ramps with railings and handles. It will also ensure water points have easy access levers and that toilets are designed for easy access. In other words, children with disabilities will be able to access all of those schools.

But this is just the start. With the deadline for the MDGs fast approaching the world has now turned to the post 2015 development framework. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to finally put disability on the agenda.

The UN’s High Level Panel, set up to present the UN Secretary-General with a vision of what the development framework should look like after the MDGs expire, have set out that the post 2015 development agenda should ‘leave no one behind’, regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status. The world’s leaders are now negotiating and considering the Panel’s vision and the UK is determined to do everything possible to ensure the final post-2015 framework sticks with this single overarching goal.

This week’s meeting is a positive sign that the UN is serious about strengthening the rights of disabled people around the world. Drawing international attention to this issue and driving progress will be my key priorities for UNGA. As a global community, we have a duty to safeguard the most vulnerable and if we are to defeat poverty we must tackle the causes as well as the symptoms. In many countries and communities, the barriers people with disabilities face means they have no chance of lifting themselves out of poverty and reaching their full potential.

The Department for International Development is already incorporating disability into our programmes across Africa and Asia, and we have recently committed £2million towards an additional three years support to the Disability Rights Fund – the only grant-making organisation to solely and directly support disabled people’s organisations in developing countries.

But we know that at the moment it is hard to even assess the scale of the challenge when it comes to disability because of the lack of sound global data. Quite simply we don’t know where disabled people are and what their needs are. So the UK will work with our partners – those with the expertise and access – to get the data we need. We will particularly focus on improving the data on children with disabilities and their special educational needs, and on the data for access to water and sanitation facilities.

But the UK can’t do this alone. We will also be urging the governments in the countries we support to deliver on their commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

I believe we have reached a watershed moment on disability – one which we cannot afford to get wrong. Development progress is only as good as the weakest member and progress made across the world is diluted if the most vulnerable are left behind. If developing countries are to move forward into prosperity and greater self-reliance, they must take everyone on the journey. It is up to us, as leaders in the international community, to help them on their way.

Representing the UK at the UN General Assembly

The world came together today for the biggest disability rights meeting to take place in five years  – and I was proud to represent the UK.

With one billion people globally facing unequal access to education, employment, healthcare, social support and justice as a result of disability, this was my chance to demand an end to this great neglect.

But actions speak louder than words and, on behalf of the British Government, I announced a range of measures which will improve the lives of disabled people in the poorest parts of the world.

At the UN General Assembly in New York, I pledged that children with disabilities in the developing world will be able to access and use all schools built with direct UK funding from this day forward.

It is telling that of the 57 million children currently out of school in the world today, over a third have a disability.

So school construction the UK directly supports in the developing world will now be built using ‘universal design’, with easily accessible entry points and toilets, wide entry doors, wide aisles, ramps with railings and handles, and water points with easy-access levers.

We will also work with partners to improve the global data on disability, in particular focusing on children with disabilities and their special educational needs, and on information about access to water and sanitation facilities.

And I urged governments in the countries we support to deliver on their commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

As a global community, we have a duty to safeguard the most vulnerable. If developing countries are to move forward into prosperity and greater self-reliance, they must take everyone on the journey.

With the on-going discussion of what development should focus on when the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to finally put disability on the agenda.

My announcement came on the same day Britain reaffirmed our commitment to tackling three killer diseases with new support to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

Over the last year, I have seen the success of the Global Fund for myself during visits to Africa and assessed the life-saving role it plays.

So I was very proud that the UK committed £1bn to the Global Fund over the next three years so long as others join us in ensuring it meets its target of $15bn and our contribution is 10% of the total replenishment.

That will save a life every three years with antiretroviral therapy for 750,000 people living with HIV, 32 million more insecticide-treated nets to prevent the transmission of malaria and TB treatment for over a million more people.

In just one day, the UK underlined its commitment to those in greatest need. We have risen to the challenge – now we need the rest of the world to follow us.