Inclusion and entertainment in Edinburgh at the RI World Congress

Nicola Sturgeon speaking on stage at the RI World Congress in Edinburgh.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, spoke about the importance of working together to leave no one behind.

“Speakers shared their journeys to overcome stigma and discrimination”

Sightsavers staff members Marion Steff, Kate Bennell and Andrea Pregel attended the 23rd Rehabilitation International World Congress in Edinburgh on 25-27 October 2016.

Staged every four years, the Congress aims to further the empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities.

About 1,000 people working in the field of disability, from 58 countries, attended the three-day event, which was organised under the theme ‘An inclusive world’. It was a great opportunity to see and hear presentations around key disability themes including employment, education, independent living, ageing, disaster management and sport: here are some of the highlights.


Watch Nicola Sturgeon’s opening address at the congress.

Speakers and presentations

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, delivered a formidable speech on the importance of working together to leave no one behind in Scotland and throughout the world.

Some of the presentations that stood out the most were the ones coming from the heart, where the speakers shared their personal journeys to overcome stigma and discrimination. Two we particularly liked were from Daniel Biddle, NRAC consultant and survivor of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, and Claire Chue Hong, from Disabled Persons Housing Service Fife, who openly explained her battle with mental illness.

We also enjoyed Prof Nora Groce’s presentation on the great work led by the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre to promote inclusive development, and the presentation by Colin Allen, president of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and Chair of the International Disability Alliance (IDA), who discussed the importance of sign languages for deaf people worldwide and presented the WFD’ Position Paper on the Language Rights of Deaf Children.

Dr Tom Shakespeare delivered a superb presentation on the right of people with disabilities to sexual and reproductive health, and Graeme Whippy spoke about Channel 4’s goal to create a network of disabled talent on TV and to get people talking about disability while keeping it visible on screen.

Issues raised and accessibility

In terms of accessibility, the conference venue was easy to navigate with good signage and lots of volunteers to provide information and assistance in how to get from one part of the venue to another.

Several speakers mentioned the need to disaggregate data by disability and to involve people with disabilities in research processes as creators of knowledge – two areas in which we are investing a lot here at Sightsavers, through our work on data disaggregation and participatory research.

We were also pleased to hear more about the WHO Global Cooperation on Assistive Technology (GATE) initiative. It was great to learn that by 2050, two billion people from low and middle income countries will have access to assistive technology and how assistive technology will help achieve the inclusion targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Presentations from major UK companies like BT and Barclays were very interesting: we heard not only about the steps they are taking to attract people with disabilities into their workforce but also how they’re providing the support needed so everyone can work in a productive and accessible environment. (One shocking statistic mentioned was that 45 per cent of employers in the UK in 2016 worry that if they were to employ a person with disabilities, they wouldn’t be able to do the job the employer needs them to do. It was said, rightfully, that the best way to resolve this issue was to talk to the person – take time to know his/her thoughts on how to overcome a specific challenge.)

The Global List

The Congress saw the launch of the inaugural Global List which celebrates the achievements of 50 of the most influential people with disabilities on the planet. While there was nobody from the UK represented in the list, we were excited to see the name of Yetnebersh Nigussie, our excellent colleague at Light for the World, who was acknowledged for her great work as a disability rights activist in Ethiopia and worldwide. We were also glad to see Adam Hills (the Australian presenter known for the hilarious Channel 4 show The Last Leg) featured on the list. We were pleased at the list’s diversity, and felt it had a good representation of individuals from all over the world.

Cultural performances

It wasn’t all speeches and slideshows – the Congress also featured performances from Heart n Soul, an award-winning creative arts company that promotes the talents of people with learning disabilities.

They introduced the audience to Lizzie Emeh, who blew us away with her beautiful spirit/lyrics and powerful voice, and Tilley Milburn, who delivered a creative and provocative presentation with the help of Del, her lovely stuffed pig.

The Congress concluded with the introduction of the new Rehabilitation International president, Mrs Zhang Haidi, the Chairperson of China Disabled Persons’ Federation, and a stunning act by the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe. There was also a ground-shaking performance by Drumfun, during which all delegates were given percussion instruments and invited to create a collective music performance.

Possible areas for improvement

One issue we noticed with the event was that the Sustainable Development Goals weren’t mentioned prominently enough, given their global importance. Also, the importance of including Disabled People’s Organisations to advance global social inclusion still needed to be stated over and over, and the language used by some presenters was very outdated, reflecting a charity or medical approach to disability as opposed to social or human rights perspectives.

There was also an accessibility issue with some of the ministerial speeches – because they were given in Chinese and Indian and then subtitled in English, they weren’t accessible for people with visual impairments.

These issues aside, the RI World Congress was a wonderful event – exhilarating, educational and entertaining – and we’re already looking forward to the next Congress, taking place in Denmark in 2020.

See Twitter updates from the event as it happened: #inclusiveworld



Sightsavers logoKate Bennell is the organisational inclusion coordinator at Sightsavers UK. Severely sight impaired herself, she coordinates the Social Inclusion Working Group and champions accessibility.

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