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1.3 Billion People With Disabilities Are at Risk of Being Left Behind. We Can Do Better.

Eddie Ndopu is a United Nations Global Advocate for the SDGs.


There’s a Maya Angelou quote that I have come to live by: “I go forth alone, and stand as ten thousand.”

Except — I cannot stand. 

When I was born with spinal muscular atrophy in Namibia, my mother was told I wouldn’t live beyond five. I came into this life as one physically disabled man of color with dreams of wanting to change the world. But I also came into this life representing the unattended aspirations of the 1.3 billion disabled people who live on the planet today.

My life is therefore in service of expanding my own possibilities to show the world what people like me are capable of. I want to go beyond expectations — beyond my own, beyond the ones others have of me, and beyond what people think of everyone else who looks like me. That’s the thing that has defined me, not my disability.

A year ago, I was asked to become one of the United Nations’ Global Advocates for the SDGs. This collection of defenders was put together to call for bigger, better changes in the world that will benefit its most vulnerable populations first. Of the 17 of us, there are two heads of state, a handful of royals, as well as other eminent personalities — leaders much more powerful than myself. I came to this role as not just the youngest member of the group, but also as the only member self-identifying as disabled. 

I said yes to joining this group, but not for the reasons that people think. 

Before getting that call from the United Nations, I could have easily been a statistic. The global literacy rate for people with disabilities is less than 5%, and according to UNESCO, 90% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school whatsoever.

This could have been me. 

Eddie.Headshot.jpgEddie Ndopu

Instead, I have somehow managed to defy the odds. I may be one of only a handful of people with a severe degenerative disability to graduate from Oxford, but this does not change the reality that the overwhelming majority of young people who look like me have never seen the inside of a classroom, let alone the inside of a boardroom.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have a voice and I intend to use it to amplify the voices of children and young people with disabilities everywhere. I want to demonstrate to them that they can grow up to become the protagonists in the story of their own lives, that they can find their place in the world and embody joy, love, brilliance, creativity, and genius — the very best of humanity.

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But in order for children and young people with disabilities to have a shot at life and become everything and anything their imaginations desire, we as humanity must do more to create the structural conditions of possibility for disabled people to flourish: We must remake the world for them. This requires that we ask for the same opportunities that everyone else has been given.

That's why, together with Global Citizen, I am inviting you — global citizens everywhere — to urge world leaders to set up the first-ever global fund for disability access and inclusion. Currently, there is no global entity that pools together resources from both the private and public sectors in service of a bold vision that meaningfully includes the fifth of the world who are being left behind.

Leaving no one behind is not just a question of acknowledging the humanity of the marginalized. Disabled people want more than acknowledgement of our humanity: We want to be part of humanity. We want to exercise our agency. We want to be able to live productive and meaningful lives. We want to thrive. 

Maya Angelou came as one. Together, we can stand for 1.3 billion.

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