International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities and access to social security

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 asserts that social security is an inalienable human right. As the international community celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, it is important to highlight the goal to realize equal access to the right to social security protection for persons with disabilities.

It is accepted that there is a close association between persons with disabilities and the risk of poverty. Persons with disabilities are also likely to have less access to labour markets and to well-paying jobs. Physical and attitudinal barriers in civil society also heighten the exclusion of persons with disabilities.

“Social security systems play a critical role in assisting people with disabilities, not only providing access to benefits and services but also access to jobs. To respond to the needs of individuals, social security administrations need to develop appropriate disability management capacities and return-to-work programmes”, says Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, Secretary General of the ISSA.

Writing in the International Social Security Review (Vol. 70, No. 4), the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, states that the common experience of social and economic exclusion by persons with disabilities is heightened by the inequalities this diverse group face in gaining access to systems of social security protection.

A challenge to overcome can be the inappropriate administrative design of these systems, also to facilitate access to and return to work.

Institutions matter

Realizing equality in access to the human right to social security is often considered a procedural matter – a question of political will and of administrative capacity and competence. From this perspective, coverage extension depends simply on an appropriately-resourced political and bureaucratic process.

More often than not, conventional bureaucracies were designed to cater to the needs of all, based on common procedures and common deliverables designed for the “typical” case. Such bureaucracies came to be expected to function best when offering, what might be called, one-size-fits-all solutions.
On the flip side, such bureaucratic approaches were not necessarily designed to offer flexibility or to have the resources available to make distinctions between the different needs of individuals.
In the pursuit of equality in access to the right to social security for all, especially for people with disabilities, this observation merits reflection.

Innovation and a tailored approaches

The adoption in 2006 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is viewed as turning point in coordinated international efforts to render social protection more inclusive, with Article 28 asserting that social protection be tailored to the needs of people with disabilities.

It is at the national level, not least in places of work, where practical and coordinated measures to support people with disabilities are most required. In the workplace, the ISSA Guidelines on Return to Work and Reintegration and the report on the Return on Work Reintegration show that investments in rehabilitation measures are beneficial for employers, social security schemes and society.

Generally, it is time to question the conventional bureaucratic design and delivery of social security protection. In practical terms, what is required is innovation to develop phased, measurable and time-bound responses. In this regard, the ISSA’s Good Practices in Social Security database can support social security agencies. As can the fundamental objectives set out in the ISSA Guidelines on Service Quality.

Two key points for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda emerge from this. In the search for appropriate innovative responses, the immediate challenge is not simply to achieve universal coverage. Also necessary is equality of access to coverage that ensures that such coverage is tailored to the needs of each person. Such tailored coverage should offer not only protection, but prevention and, consistent with Article 26 of the UNCRPD, habilitation and rehabilitation measures.

The role of institutions

The implications for social security institutions are clear. On the one hand, universal access to social security protection must mean providing benefit levels and services that are consistent with the person’s needs, including disability-related needs and expenses – persons with disabilities are confronted with daily expenditures that persons without disabilities are not. On the other hand, the services provided by, as well as the physical infrastructure, of social security systems must be accessible to all. The envisioned goal is to appropriately support people with disabilities to attain physical, mental, social and vocational ability, and to permit inclusion and participation.

Realizing equality in access to permit universal coverage thus requires the mobilization of important resources to address poorly-defined or unmet needs and to remove unnecessary physical, economic and social barriers. In this way, higher public expectations as regards social security provisions, as identified in the ISSA report, Ten global challenges for social security, can be better satisfied.

Urban planning, transportation and labour market policies are part of a necessarily coordinated national response. As are state-of-the-art information and communications technologies that offer the promise of the improved administration and delivery of social security benefits and services in a cost-effective manner. An entrenched social hurdle to overcome may relate to the negative attitudes towards and stigmatization of persons with disabilities in society.

As the international community marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, there is a pressing need to foster an understanding that the goal of equality in access to social security, to realize universal coverage as a human right, must necessarily also respect and respond to the individual needs of each and every person, including persons with disabilities, across the life course. In pursuit of this important objective, the ISSA recently signed a cooperation agreement with the global organization and network Rehabilitation International (RI).

Key reference

Devandas Aguilar, C. 2017. “Social protection and persons with disabilities”, in International Social Security Review, Vol. 70, No. 4.