The Grand Challenge of Disability and Development

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people….We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” John F. Kennedy announced at Rice University on September 12th, 1962. And we did- America landed on the moon that same decade on July 20th, 1969. That is the original “moonshot thinking”, or the idea that we must tackle ambitious, impossible projects in order to create change.

“Grand Challenges” encapsulates moonshot thinking, although the term itself is credited to David Hilbert, who laid out 23 mathematical questions at the International Mathematical Congress in Paris in 1900.  Those original Grand Challenges detailed “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution” (as defined by Lewis Branscomb) and challenged a cross-section of experts to work together on solutions.  While traditionally focusing on science and technology, Branscomb and others instead favor larger societally-focused projects. Their vision of the Grand Challenges conceptual framework has been embraced by USAID, the White House, and the UN. Examples of programs oriented on the Grand Challenges framework include the USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s partnership on Ensuring Effective Health Supply Chain as well as other USAID projects like Scaling Off Grid Energy, Combating Zika and Future Threats, and All Children Reading.

The Grand Challenge is Sustainable Development Goals and its preceding Millennium Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are a 15 year plan to tackle Grand Challenges across 17 different issue areas established in 2015. This look at systemic challenges worldwide creates an alternative mindset to development. In fact, they have become key in defining how we think about program effectiveness by giving targets and indicators to meet. These goals provide a unifying framework for state and nonstate actors worldwide to enact progress.

The SDGs made the UN framework more inclusive by including the grand challenge of disability and development with eleven explicit references to persons with disabilities. This is important because it will guide behavior by states. This has been furthered by high level work such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006 that shifted conceptual thinking from disabilities as a medical condition to a human right, which creates opportunities and higher equity for the traditionally marginalized 15% of every country’s population. This is an important step towards to true equality. While public policy focused on the inclusion of disabled persons may not spark the same initial general interest level as landing on the moon, it is surely a moonshot idea to radically shift how we think, talk, and create policy for this excluded group. This opens a window for a population whose potential contributions to society have been dismissed.

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