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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality

Review and appraisal of the
World Programme of Action
concerning Disabled Persons

Part 2 of 6  PreviousBack to ContentsNext

II. Trends in policies and programmes from the disability perspective

A. Disability perspective on development

The General Assembly, in adopting the World Programme of Action, took care to define equality for persons with disabilities on a parity with opportunities for those of the entire population. Parity in this sense is viewed not as a static phenomenon but one that would be fostered and maintained as countries engaged in economic and social development. The Assembly thus envisaged what can be termed the "disability perspective" on development when considering options to further the goals and objectives of the World Programme of Action.

Since the end of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons, there has been increased recognition of the importance of addressing disability issues as an integral part of national development policies and programmes. Such recognition may be due to increases in both the absolute number of disabled persons and the percentage of the population with a disability in many countries. Moreover, as countries develop, they not only create new forms of societal structures but replace existing structures to reflect new approaches and the needs of larger and more diverse populations in a more efficient and effective manner. In recent years, many disability advocates have urged that increased attention be accorded to universal design approaches, which are defined as the planning and creation of environments that accommodate the needs of the entire population. For instance, the application of universal design in educational policies and programmes will save countries the expenses associated with making schools and the school environment accessible to children with disabilities. This will also save on costs associated with institutionalizing people throughout their life. An equally important consideration is that universal design can benefit student populations as a whole. In a recent comparative study on development planning it was noted that there were disabled persons in all population groups, and that the planning and design of development policies, programmes and projects that include the disability dimension as a natural element would add social value to the results of development activities, usually with minor or no costs.1

B. Issues in integration and mainstreaming of persons with disabilities

Universal approaches represent a relatively new trend in the disability field, but they also reflect fundamental concerns of the United Nations with both the social, economic and cultural rights, and the civil and political rights of persons with disabilities. These concerns obtained added emphasis during the 1970s with the adoption by the General Assembly of declarations on the rights of persons with disabilities;2 the goals of the World Programme, namely, full and effective participation of disabled persons and equality clearly reflect a concern with the rights of persons with disabilities; and the Standard Rules direct special attention to measures which promote the rights of disabled persons.

The period since the Decade has witnessed increased attention being accorded to the participation of persons with disabilities in development, to a disability perspective in policies and plans, and to placement of disability issues in a broader human rights framework. Development participation in this sense represents both a means and an end. As used in the World Programme of Action, the term pertains to involvement in developmental decision-making, contributing to developmental efforts and equal sharing in the results of development. International development conferences held during the 1990s addressed the situation of persons with disabilities with reference to a range of substantive concerns and not as issues specifically related to disability. The human rights of persons with disabilities now are recognized to be less the concern of a social group with particular needs and increasingly a prerequisite for advancing the rights of all.

This trend is also evident in contemporary approaches to action on disability. Traditional social welfare approaches, characterized by an emphasis on providing assistance to persons with disabilities to adapt to so-called normal societal structures, are increasingly being supplanted by human rights approaches which focus on the empowerment of persons with disabilities and on modifications required of environments to facilitate the equalization of opportunities for all. The human rights approach in this sense reflects the complementarity between the social, economic and cultural rights, and the civil and political rights, of persons with disabilities.

The application of human rights approaches to achieve the prevention and rehabilitation objectives of the World Programme of Action are evident in the increased attention now being accorded to beneficiary choice, access to service alternatives and environmental factors. For instance, Rules 2 to 4 of the Standard Rules, on medical care, rehabilitation and support services, respectively, outline options that States may consider to ensure the effective provision of services to persons with disabilities. The measures outlined include several basic environmental issues: the role of community: level information and outreach; beneficiary participation in decisions on services; and community involvement in delivery and management of services. Social welfare professionals, as members of multidisciplinary teams make particular contributions to this process by their focus on the empowerment of persons with disabilities and their families to participate as informed consumers, and not as passive recipients, of services that are aimed at improving livelihoods and well-being.

The increased attention paid to human rights approaches to disability has led to the recognition of their role as both a means and an end for the implementation of the World Programme of Action. Efforts to achieve the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in the development mainstream have resulted in an increased focus on environmental factors that can facilitate or impede implementation of the three objectives of the Programme of Action: prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities. Environmental factors affect all and, in this sense, environmental factors include the development setting for participation, accessibility issues and the differential impacts that individuals may experience as they interact with their environment. Several environmental factors are considered in Rules 5 through 12 of the Standard Rules on, respectively, accessibility, education, employment, income maintenance and social security, family life and personal integrity, culture, recreation and sports, and religion.

C. Trends in disability policies and programmes since 1992 at the national, regional and international levels

1. Policy instruments adopted since 1992

The General Assembly adopted, within a year after the Decade, two additional instruments in the field of disability: the Long-term Strategy to Implement the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons to the Year 2000 and Beyond (A/49/435, annex), and the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (Assembly resolution 48/96, annex).

In addition, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific proclaimed the period 1993-2002 as the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, with the theme of promotion of the full participation and equality of people with disabilities.3

The Long-term Strategy presents a framework for collaborative action at the national, regional and international levels to achieve the aim expressed by the Assembly in resolution 48/99 of a society for all by the year 2010. The Strategy outlines a sequence of suggested actions by interested Governments for the period 1995-2010, together with associated targets, time-frames for action and an ancillary set of support measures at the regional and international levels to realize that aim.

The Special Rapporteur on Disability of the Commission for Social Development noted in his second monitoring report on the implementation of the Standard Rules, the way in which the Rules complemented the World Programme of Action by their focus on furthering the objective of equalization of opportunities. The 22 Rules are in three categories, that is, preconditions for equal participation, target areas for equal participation, and implementation measures, and contain guidelines for an independent monitoring mechanism.

A third disability instrument, on special education, was elaborated in 1994 at the World Conference on Special Needs Education, which was organized by UNESCO, in cooperation with the Government of Spain, and held at Salamanca, Spain, from 7 to 10 June 1994. The Conference adopted the Salamanca Statement on Principles, Policy and Practice in Special Needs Education, and the Framework for Action on Special Needs Education which contains guidelines for action at the national, regional and international levels to further the education of all children.4

Each of these post-Decade instruments are significant by their emphasis on country-level action with reference to: (a) specific objectives and associated implementation monitoring mechanisms concerning the situation of persons with disabilities; (b) the gender perspective; (c) beneficiary-centred approaches; and (d) a life-cycle focus on children with disabilities, from their full participation in the formal educational system to their active involvement in decisions on changes over the life cycle owing to age or socio-economic circumstances.

2. Treatment of disability issues by recent United Nations conferences

International conferences organized by the United Nations since the end of the Decade have addressed the situation of disabled persons as a substantive concern in the context of human rights, development and demographic change, social policies and development, women and shelter. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights on 25 June 1993,5 contains in the chapter on equality, dignity and tolerance, a specific section on the rights of disabled persons. The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development6 addresses the situation of persons with disabilities in its chapter on the family, its roles, rights, composition and structure. The Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development7 notes that people with disabilities are often forced into poverty, unemployment and social isolation. The Programme of Action addresses disability issues in three main chapters, on the eradication of poverty, the expansion of productive employment and reduction of unemployment, and social integration. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women on 15 September 19958 addressed the situation of women who face barriers to advancement and empowerment because of disability and other factors. Strategic objective B.l(a) of the Platform for Action urges Governments to advance equal access to education through measures to eliminate discrimination on the basis of both gender and disability. The Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements and the Habitat Agenda adopted by the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II)9 includes among its commitment on adequate shelter for all the objective of designing and implementing standards that provide accessibility also to persons with disabilities in accordance with the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.


1 Ronald Wiman and others, The Disability Dimension in Development Action: Manual on Inclusive Planning (Helsinki, National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health in Finland on behalf of the United Nations, 1996), p.12.

2 General Assembly resolution 2856 (XXVI), on the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons, and Assembly resolution 3447 (XXX), on the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

3 See Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 1992, Supplement No. 11 (E/1992/31), chap. IV, resolution 48/3.

4 See UNESCO, "Report of the World Conference on Special Needs Education " (Salamanca, 7-10 June 1994).

5 A/CONF.157/24 (Part I), chap. III.

6 Report of the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 5-13 September 1994 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.95.XIII.18), chap. I, resolution 1, annex.

7 Report of the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, 6-12 March 1995 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.96.IV.8), chap. I, resolution 1.

8 Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 4-15 September 1995 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.96.IV.13), chap. I, resolution 1.

9 A/CONF.165/14, chap. I, resolution I.

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United Nations, 2003-04
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Division for Social Policy and Development