Mr. Martin Essl, Chairman of the Essl Foundation,
Mr. Markus Raffer, CEO of Tec-Innovation,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Colleagues and friends,
It is my honour to address the Zero Project Conference 2022, and to thank you for inviting me to open this inspiring event.
I am so very happy and grateful to be able to welcome you to the Vienna International Center in-person once again.
Disability inclusion is a human rights issue, a health issue, a social and economic issue, and so much more. It is also a priority that has always been and continues to be close to my heart.
More than one billion people around the world experience some form of disability. We have to ensure their inclusion, not as an aspirational goal, but as an obligation.
The theme that you have chosen for this year’s Zero Conference, “Accessibility”, is at the foundation of that obligation.
Removing barriers is paramount to ensuring that all people of all abilities can participate equally in all aspects of life, as enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which has now been ratified by more than 184 countries.
Facilities, services, and information must be accessible to all.
Measures taken to guarantee this should be part of any planning process, and they should be constantly revisited and updated.
This Vienna International Centre where we are convening today is an example of this approach. All entrances and most elevators have been upgraded for accessibility, and we are working on new installations, including improved ramps, railings, and lighting and alarm systems.
Now more than ever is the time to dedicate our attention to this issue.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new barriers for everyone. To those who were already facing exceptional barriers, it has only added to the challenge.
According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities are often at greater risk of COVID infection, and they continue to face additional obstacles to accessing care.
The crisis has worsened inequalities between people, and between countries as well.
Unlike developed economies, developing and transitioning economies are not projected to return to pre-pandemic growth and output levels even by 2023.
This is particularly relevant for people with disabilities, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries.
The economic consequences of the pandemic also threaten to push technologies for equal access further out of reach in low-income countries.
We need governments to work with civil society, the private sector, the UN and international organizations, young people, educators and all stakeholders to address these challenges.
Together, we must also address the discrimination, stigmatization, complacency, and resistance that too often stand in the way of inclusion.
True accessibility goes beyond ensuring physical access to places or to information. It is about equal access to the opportunities that everyone is entitled to, including jobs and education.
It is also about access to justice, and protection in the criminal justice system, an area integral to our mandate at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Police stations, courts, and prisons need to be able to accommodate people with disabilities and preserve their rights and their dignity.
Digitization of such services and the use of new technologies can contribute to the removal of some barriers, but we need more specific, dedicated attention and action on access to justice for people with disabilities.
Beyond practical measures, accessibility is rooted in attitudes and mindsets. The surest path to granting people with disabilities access to all aspects of life is by normalizing the belief that it is achievable, necessary, and productive, and by allocating the necessary resources to make it a reality.
Governments need to invest more in disability inclusion, and partners in civil society can help them determine how to make this investment effectively.
It is not about “special treatment”; it is about fair play. It is not about “a helping hand”; it is about enabling people to exercise their rights.
It is not about pity; it is about respect.
It is a moral and legal obligation, and it is also the responsibility to make sure that the world benefits from the immense contributions that this 15 percent of its population has to offer.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The most important voice in this equation is the voice of people with disabilities.
They have made it clear to us when they proclaimed: “nothing about us without us”.
We must listen and work with them, to overcome barriers of policy and practice.
The Zero Conference is a precious platform for this dialogue.
By bringing together over 9,000 experts from 180 countries, your network empowers change-makers in re-shaping attitudes and pursuing innovation.
I look forward to seeing the bold new ideas that will be highlighted at this conference, including those put forth by the 76 Zero Project Awardees that will be honoured, from the public and private sector as well as civil society.
They are bringing valuable innovations for inclusion in vital fields such as public transport, urban planning, healthcare, workplace adaption, and even playgrounds and games.
Your efforts can mobilize much-needed attention, resources, and solutions.
In the United Nations, you will find a committed partner.
In 2019, the Secretary-General launched the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy, with a dedicated indicator for accessibility.
I am fully committed to the implementation of that strategy here in Vienna, through our own Action Plan for Disability Inclusion.
Last year, Our Office held two events in collaboration with the Zero Project, to inform and raise awareness on disability inclusion.
In terms of recruitment, we have taken the first small steps on an important road, by launching an initiative to employ interns with disabilities.
We are also aiming to mainstream disability inclusion into the assistance that UNODC provides to Member States on drugs and crime challenges, by establishing mechanisms to ensure that our programmes account for the needs of people with disabilities.
As the proud home of the Zero Conference, we want to meet the highest standards of accessibility and inclusion, and we look to you for support and inspiration.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to every one of you, for your bravery, hard work, and dedication to a topic that will always be a priority for me.
I would particularly like to thank Mr. Martin Essl for his unwavering commitment and for being a great partner to the United Nations in Vienna.
A special thanks also to our moderator Caroline Casey, for lighting up these conferences with her energy and sincere enthusiasm.
The Zero Conference is an opportunity to bring down barriers and lift up people.
This year, it is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to inclusion, access, and empowerment, and to our promise to leave no one behind.