Empowering persons with disabilities through trade

5 December 2022
ITC News

The International Trade Centre (ITC) talked with Amrita Bahri, expert on trade and disability inclusion on International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

About 15% of the world’s population live with disabilities, and 80% live in developing countries. However, trade negotiations still do not reflect their needs.

“The intersection between trade policies and disability inclusion is a subject that has so far largely been ignored.  We haven’t looked at trade agreements from this perspective,” says Amrita Bahri, Associate Professor of Law at ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México), and Co-Chair for Mexico, World Trade Organization (WTO) Chair Programme.

The scholar worked with a team of experts for more than a year to evaluate all trade agreements and identify the provisions that directly or indirectly relate to disability inclusion.

The research, funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, showed that out of the 355 Free Trade Agreements notified to the WTO, and currently in force, 98 are found to have at least one explicit provision aiming to protect or promote the interests of persons with disabilities.

“There are more agreements with explicit provisions on disability than on gender. But while gender equality, labour or environment have attracted much attention over the past decades, nothing is written specifically about people with disabilities and trade agreements. It is still a hidden agenda,” regrets Bahri.

In this interview granted to ITC, the author of the study “Making Trade Agreements Work for People with Disabilities: What’s been Achieved and What Remains Undone” highlights some key findings of her innovative work to put disability inclusion at the centre of trade talks.

How can trade empower persons with disabilities?

Trade liberalization and trade agreements increase employment and business opportunities for everyone, including those with disabilities. Moreover, if appropriately negotiated, trade liberalization and trade agreements can empower people with disabilities to have more affordable access to assistive devices, such as prosthetics.

But this will only happen if these agreements include preferential market access commitments focused on these products. Another way trade can support the needs of persons with disabilities is by agreeing on waivers on intellectual property rights protection concerning these products to bring down their costs.

What are the downsides of trade liberalization for persons with disabilities?

There was a promise that with trade liberalization, goods that are essential for persons with disabilities would become more affordable and more available. Unfortunately, the opposite happened.

As a result of trade liberalization, these goods have become less affordable, especially for people in developing countries with lower per capita income and resources. For instance, agreements featuring more intellectual property rights have further increased the cost of access to assistive equipment and medicines as they have enabled private stakeholders to retain ownership of the intellectual property of the medicines and the equipment they design.

What can governments do to avoid and mitigate the negative impacts of trade liberalization? 

There should be two dimensions to trade negotiations. One is dealing with the barriers head-on. Preferential market access should focus on the goods that the people with disabilities majorly consume. Regarding intellectual property rights, we could agree on some leniency in the trade agreements themselves or some sort of waivers to lower down the threshold of this protection for several products. This initiative should depend upon the conditions of countries and the kinds of disability.

It is also essential to fight the stigma and discrimination associated with disabilities. This can be addressed by fostering a social dialogue, creating better legislation for people with disabilities, and ensuring equal opportunities, better education, access to e-commerce and new technologies. Acknowledging the barriers and needs of this community to have access to reasonable accommodation and improved workplace conditions is essential.  

Trade negotiations must also take into consideration that the barriers persons with disabilities face in developed countries are quite different from those they face in developing countries.  

Your research shows governments in developed countries are much more active in establishing trade agreements with disability-explicit mentions. Why do we see this imbalance compared to developing countries?

Indeed, the majority of the agreements, including disability inclusion provisions come from the developed world. The United Kingdom, for instance, has commissioned this particular study on trade and disability inclusion, and it is the country with the largest number of trade agreements with disability-inclusive provisions.

Developing countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, among others, have also signed disability-inclusive commitments. But we have observed that these kind of trade agreements were signed with developed country partners.

To my knowledge, there aren’t agreements considering disability inclusion signed exclusively between developing countries. There are several reasons to understand why developing countries are staying away from these discussions. The first one is simply because they don’t have data. Therefore, they lack the capacity to understand how trade and disability relate.

With all this lack of information, it is understandable that developing countries are still reluctant. How can one commit to provisions in agreements that do not fully understand?

What are the following steps to change this reality and improve the conditions of persons with disabilities through trade? 

Including the beneficiaries of these discussions in the negotiations is a must-do. We must foster public-private consultations and then engage the right stakeholders in the conversation. By doing so, we can know exactly how to draft agreements that do not just look good on paper but correctly address the barriers that persons with disabilities face.

Studies on the relations between trade and disability inclusion are still scarce, and we are in the very early stage of this research. But data collection is also extremely important.

Framing the disability issue right is crucial. Over 1 billion people in the world currently experience some form of disability and the markets for assistive devices are increasing. Emphasizing the economic benefits of having a more inclusive trade is an important strategy to attract more attention and engage more participants in this discussion. We must make clear that the empowerment of people with disabilities is not merely a social concern; it has an economic value.

We need to consider the disability inclusion aspect as a business case, as we did for gender equality concerns, for instance.

Are you optimistic?

It is a very difficult question. We have found some good practices in our research. The agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom is very interesting regarding special insurance benefits and invalidity benefits for persons with disabilities in the form of cash payments and financial allowances. There are several pages providing details on how these payments should be calculated. They also have added commitments, mechanisms, and procedures to implement those measures.

This agreement also contemplates a chapter on effective and non-discriminatory measures to protect the interests of consumers with disabilities and reduced mobility in air transport. We have seen provisions that we haven’t seen in any other agreement.

Another good example is the agreement between Australia and the United Kingdom. This agreement has a provision dedicated to protecting small businesses owned by persons with disabilities and supporting their interests to have better working conditions.  

I see some movements here and there. Nothing revolutionary yet, but it is moving. That’s why we must engage more experts and more scholars and listen to persons with disabilities to lead inclusive trade negotiations.

Glossary to become ‘disability smart’

Assistive technology (AT): is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.

Disability inclusion: The term “disability inclusion” refers to the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in all their diversity, the promotion and mainstreaming of their rights into the work of the Organization, the development of disability-specific programmes and consideration of disability-related perspectives, in compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This requires developing and implementing a consistent and systematic approach to disability inclusion in all areas of operations and programming, both internally and externally.

Persons with disabilities: The term includes those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Reasonable accommodation: Reasonable accommodation is any change to a job or a work environment that is needed to enable a person with a disability to apply, perform and advance in job functions, or undertake training.