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Disability Mainstreaming

IMEW Briefing, No. 10, December 2007

Disability mainstreaming is a relatively recent term which still rarely features in the German debate. It is implicitly and explicitly modelled on gender mainstreaming, which itself became part of the international political agenda in 1995 in connection with development aid policies and was subsequently introduced into almost all policy areas in Germany too. The GenderKompetenzZentrum was set up to support the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in the implementation of gender mainstreaming (www.gender-mainstreaming.net). Thus experience has already been gained with gender mainstreaming which can be utilised in the implementation of disability mainstreaming.


The term mainstreaming denotes that a topic or endeavour is to be brought from the margin to the centre of focus and should become established throughout society. Disability mainstreaming, therefore, involves making the interests of people with disabilities an integral part of processes in politics, administration, society and scientific research – from the very beginning, not just as an add-on once basic decisions have already been made. Thus while disability mainstreaming is on the one hand an instrument for achieving the equality of people with disabilities it is on the other hand also a model or blueprint, because it requires a different approach and a fundamental change in attitudes and perspective.

Gender and Disability

The term disability which, like the term gender (i.e. sex in the social context), reveals that the root of the inequality experienced by women or people with disabilities. should be sought in society rather than in biology (Albert & Miller, 2005). Since gender and disability mainstreaming serve the goal of equality the need for change is seen to lie primarily in society and not in the individual. This standpoint corresponds to that of the social model developed by Disability Studies and contrasts with the individual/medical model of disability.
Last (2004) examined the objectives of development aid projects in which disabilities played a role. The projects concerned with rehabilitation, orthopaedics and vocational training all took the individual as their point of departure. Albert and Miller came to a similar conclusion. They recommend shifting the focus to the financing of projects whose goal is the social participation of people with disabilities and chronic health conditions – and to establish disabilities as an important concern of development aid in general (Albert & Miller, 2005).

Disability Mainstreaming in Scientific Research

Disability mainstreaming in science and research means a change in perspective along the lines described above. It also means involving people with disabilities in decision-making processes relating to research design and research topics. Until now people with disabilities have only in exceptional cases been asked what expectations they have of medical research, for example, and which issues are particularly important to them. The few investigations that have been undertaken show that there is a great difference between the perspective of people with disabilities and that of researchers (Abma 2005, Caron-Flinterman 2005). A further step is to involve people with disabilities in processes of priority setting with regard to research funding, for example by nominating them as members of committees advising government ministries on the direction of health research programmes.

Disability Mainstreaming in Politics

Karl Hermann Haack, erstwhile Federal German Government Commissioner for the Affairs of People with Disabilities, pointed out the comprehensive nature of disability mainstreaming: “Each and every political and social activity should be studied for the way it contributes to or hinders the equal status and participation of disabled people" (Haack, 2004). He suggests suitable checks before proposed legislation comes before parliament. Up to now, though, it is not even accepted practice to invite representatives of people with disabilities to consultations on draft laws.
Directorate General V of the European Union describes disability mainstreaming as an important strategy of European employment policy and recommends that member states implement it. In their estimation the concept is not yet understood by decision-makers and has therefore not been applied until now. Disability mainstreaming is not about small, isolated projects to promote the employment of people with disabilities, but about broad employment strategies that should be systematically pursued (European Commission, 2005).
Disability mainstreaming in technology policies means strengthening the Universal Design approach. This takes the differing needs of people with and without disabilities into account early, at the design stage. Machines are constructed in such a way that they can be operated by as many people as possible (Grüber, 2007). The demand for Universal Design is also formulated in the UN convention on the protection of the rights of people with disabilities (UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2007).

Conditions for Successful Establishment

The successful establishment of disability mainstreaming in politics and society requires a change in attitudes, especially on the part of people without disabilities who must become more empathic to the perspective of people with disabilities. Among other measures, appropriate training for staff in government ministries and lower level and local authorities who have previously not given due consideration to the issues and interests of people with disabilities would be helpful. It would allow them to gain a better understanding of perspectives with which they are at present unfamiliar.
It is also necessary to recognise obstacles to the establishment of disability mainstreaming in order to avoid them. It may be that decision processes become longer or more complicated because additional factors need to be taken into consideration. This contradicts strategies for the simplification of bureaucracy. It means that staff must also be given sufficient time to address the subject (Last, 2004).
The Establishment of Disability Mainstreaming in Organisations
Miller & Albert (2005) recommend the following dual-track procedure for the implementation and establishment of disability mainstreaming in ministries and administrative organs, but also in relevant organisations. They base their recommendations on experiences gained in the introduction of gender mainstreaming. On the one hand the equality of people with disabilities should now also be taken into consideration in areas where this was not previously an issue, making it an important mission for all instead of the task of just one office or department (usually the commissioner for people with disabilities).
At the same time, in their opinion, such offices or departments should be retained and adequately equipped even after the introduction of disability mainstreaming. Otherwise there is a danger that the implementation process will come to a halt because the interests of people with disabilities are not highlighted in the long term. They also see this as a possibility if there is no external impulse and emphasise the importance of the warning and target-formulating voice of disabled organisations in this context (Albert & Miller, 2005).


Disability mainstreaming can have important advantages: it means people with and without disabilities living together and accepting one another, but it also means avoiding retrospective and often costly corrections to big political reform projects. It formulates positive goals and does not just seek to mitigate the negative consequences of erroneous decisions. In this way it goes further than mere measures to combat discrimination.
In the preamble to the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, disability mainstreaming is viewed as an essential component of a sustainable development (UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2007). According to Heiner Bielefeldt (2006), director of the German Institute for Human Rights, the Convention has great innovative potential. He says: “The Convention is based on an understanding of disability that does not start with a negative view of disability, but expressly affirms it as a normal component of human society and, moreover, as a source of potential cultural enrichment.” It seems worthwhile considering organising the process of implementing the UN Convention as a disability mainstreaming process.

Katrin Grüber
(Translation: Hilary Coleman)


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