Around the world, people with disability face physical, social, economic and negative attitudes that marginalize them from mainstream society. These barriers prevent them from participating fully and effectively as equal and productive members of society. It is also seen that people with disability are disproportionately represented among the world’s poorest, and lack equal access to basic resources, such as education, employment, healthcare and social and legal support systems, besides having a higher rate of mortality.
Since 1992, the United Nations has been observing December 3 as the ‘International Day of People with Disability’, with varying degrees of success. The theme selected for 2013 ‘International Day of People with Disability’ is ‘Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all’. The Day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.
Observance of the Day provides opportunities for participation by all stakeholders — governments, civil society and organizations of persons with disabilities — to focus on issues related to the inclusion of persons with disabilities in development, both as beneficiaries and agents. A major focus of the Day is practical and concrete action to include disability in all aspects of development, as well as to further the participation of persons with disabilities in social life and development on the basis of equality.
Disability is when a person is not able to function as most people do, due to some mental or physical condition. Some people are born disabled, while others become disabled as a result of disease or accident; disability could also be temporary or permanent and could range from moderate to significant.
While dealing with disability was previously considered an issue that required medical understanding, now the focus has shifted from seeing it solely as a medical concern towards accepting it as a social condition that requires changes in perception and understanding by society.
The prevalent view now is that disability arises from the interaction between people having a health condition and their environment. As such, rather than confining disabled people to hospitals and treatments, society should help and encourage them to become productive members of society. This not only improves the individual well-being of the disabled person, but also works to the social and economic benefit of the entire community. Based on this new recognition, the World Bank has helped set up the Global Partnership for Disability and Development, an organization aimed at coordinating activities among donor countries, development agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and client governments.
Disability is also seen as an important development issue with an increasing body of evidence showing that persons with disabilities experience worse socioeconomic outcomes and poverty than persons without disabilities. The two-way link between poverty and disability creates a vicious circle. Poor people are more at risk of acquiring a disability because of lack of access to good nutrition, health care, sanitation, as well as safe living and working conditions. Once this occurs, people face barriers to the education, employment, and public services that can help them escape poverty.
However, it needs to be pointed out that while disability correlates with disadvantage, not all people with disabilities are equally disadvantaged. People with physical impairment generally fare better than those with intellectual or sensory impairments. Those most excluded from the labor market are often found to be those with mental health difficulties or intellectual impairments. People with more severe impairments often experience greater disadvantage.
As we organize yet another Day for people with disability, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent publication titled ‘World Report on Disability’ should come as a stark reminder. The report draws an extensive picture of the situation of people with disabilities around the world; their needs and unmet needs, and the barriers they face to participating fully in their societies. The report reveals that about 15 percent of the global population, or over one billion people, suffer some form of disability; a full fifth of the disabled, or nearly 200 million people, experience very significant difficulties. The report also underlines that the prevalence of disability around the world is growing due to population ageing and the global increase in chronic health conditions.
The ‘World Report on Disability’ also provides a global guidance on implementing the United Nations ‘Convention on the Rights of the persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which was adopted by the UN in 2006 and came into force two years later. Following the adoption of CRPD, disability has increasingly become understood as a human rights issue.
In the past, mainstream society has tended to act out of a culture of pity, rather than embrace and celebrate human differences. It is now recognized that a change of perceptions is essential to improve the situation of persons with disabilities. Too often, people with disabilities have had to manage their own disability as well as their relative invisibility to society and policymakers. They have tended to be denied equal access to the basic rights and fundamental freedoms that most of us take for granted. That marginalization has been particularly acute for women and children.
All nations that ratify the CRPD are required to promote, protect, and ensure the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities and ensure that they enjoy full equality under the law. It is worth nothing that, though belatedly, Kuwait ratified the convention in August of 2013; the United States has yet to ratify the convention.