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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 3 of 6  PreviousBack to ContentsNext

III. Progress achieved and obstacles encountered in the implementation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons in the period since the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons

A. Progress that can be attributed to the Long-term Strategy to Implement the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons to the Year 2000 and Beyond

In the second review and appraisal of the implementation of the World Programme of Action in 1992, the Secretary-General noted that, despite concerted action at the national and international levels, the data available suggested that progress in attaining the objectives of the World Programme of Action had been slow (A/47/415 and Corr.1, para. 5). Similar findings emerge from a major study on human rights and disabled persons, prepared by the Special Rapporteur of the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.10 In both reports it was noted that an achievement of the Decade had been the provision of information which had contributed to an increased understanding and awareness of disability issues and of the situation of persons with disabilities.

By resolution 47/88, the General Assembly took note of the report of the Secretary-General on the second round of monitoring of the implementation of the World Programme of Action and the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons and reaffirmed the validity and value of the World Programme of Action, which provided a firm and innovative framework for disability-related issues. The Assembly, by resolution 48/99, requested the Secretary-General to develop a long-term strategy to further the implementation of the World Programme. The Long-term Strategy to Implement the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons to the Year 2000 and Beyond was endorsed by the Assembly in resolution 49/153.

The data available, however, suggest that few countries have established the medium-term targets for the period 1997–2002, as envisaged in the Long-term Strategy. Some countries have still to establish a task force on national strategy and convene consultative forums; others have formulated policy statements and set medium-term targets to achieve a society for all within the framework of national development plans; and disability issues are reflected in selected first country cooperation frameworks of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Progress that occurred as a result of the Long-term Strategy can be attributed to two of its key characteristics. First, the Strategy is focused on establishing concrete targets to further implement the World Programme of Action and on identifying indicators to measure the progress made in achieving those targets. This is a significant consideration in the light of improvements that have occurred since the end of the Decade in the quantitative bases for policy analysis, target setting and indicator construction in the disability field. As discussed below, the first edition of the United Nations Disability Statistics Compendium11 was based upon data compiled in 1988 from 55 countries; version 2 of the disability statistics database of the Statistics Division of the United Nations Secretariat, currently under compilation, will cover more than 100 countries. Moreover, the Agenda for Action for the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, 1993–2002, has identified regional targets for the immediate term and medium term.

Second, the Strategy encourages countries to use flexibility, initiative and innovation in determining their own objectives, targets and indicators. While the data available do not suggest that such flexibility is resulting in the formulation of long-term country-level plans as envisaged in the Strategy, there is evidence that a number of countries are using bottom-up approaches to identify a range of practical disability targets appropriate to their own historical development experience, culture and conditions.12

Three difficulties may arise when implementing the Long-term Strategy. First, it does not provide guidance on the formulation of options for lead-in activities to target setting under conditions of scarce financial resources, a continuing situation experienced by many countries since the end of the Decade. Second, it does not suggest approaches for setting priorities among alternatives for action. Third, the inherent flexibility of the Long-term Strategy may lead to greater concern with process than with concrete results.


B. Progress that can be attributed to the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities

The second monitoring report of the Special Rapporteur on Disability of the Commission for Social Development on the implementation of the Standard Rules (A/52/56, annex) is before the Assembly at its current session. The implications of the report’s findings for policy development, monitoring and evaluation from the disability perspective are discussed below.

In the preparation of his second report, the Special Rapporteur obtained a good response rate from Governments and from the non-governmental community: 83 Governments submitted replies as did 163 non-governmental organizations. While the report is based on replies from Governments, of note is the fact that data were available to the Special Rapporteur from 126 countries: Governments of 30 countries provided replies for which there was no input from the non-governmental community, and non-governmental organizations in 43 countries submitted replies for which there was no governmental input.

The Special Rapporteur observed that while no country had fully implemented the Standard Rules, the data available suggested that the Rules were providing useful guidelines for the drafting of disability legislation, the formulation of national plans and the evaluation of programmes and policies. Nearly 85 per cent of countries (70 of 83) responding to the second monitoring questionnaire reported the existence of a national disability policy, which is a precondition for equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities, and 81 per cent (64 of 79) reported that the adoption of the Rules had led to governmental initiatives to promote awareness and provide information to support the full participation and equality of persons with disabilities.

The data available suggest that the issue of the human rights of persons with disabilities has obtained added importance in the broader human rights framework since the end of the Decade. In 1996, the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities considered the work of three United Nations treaty bodies concerning human rights and persons with disabilities: the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.13 In addition the Special Rapporteur on Disability submitted information to the Subcommission in May 1996 on the social development aspects and human rights dimension of the implementation of the Standard Rules.14

Data on implementing the instrumental target areas for equal participation suggest that only limited progress has been made. The second monitoring report was focused on the implementation of Rule 6 (Education) and Rule 7 (Employment), since these are the two substantive areas cited in the World Programme of Action as being important to the equalization of opportunities for disabled persons. With regard to Rule 6, data provided in cooperation with UNESCO indicate that a parent's role in decision-making on placement of children in special education is fully recognized in only 41 per cent of reporting countries (22 of 53). Children with special educational needs remain predominantly in separate educational systems, and rates of attendance are low in many countries. In over two thirds of the reporting countries (33 of 48), fewer than 1 per cent of pupils are enrolled in special educational programmes; integration thus remains a goal for the future.

Similar findings are noted with regard to Rule 7 and the promotion of sustainable livelihoods for persons with disabilities in general. Data provided in cooperation with ILO indicate that only one fifth of the countries report applying ILO Convention No. 159, on vocational rehabilitation and the promotion of employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, in its entirety. The measures that are least implemented relate to vocational rehabilitation in rural areas, cooperation with organizations of persons with disabilities and availability of qualified staff. Almost every country, however, reported implementing measures on anti-discriminatory employment.

Both sets of findings suggest a greater focus on process than outcome. While the second round of monitoring found progress in the policy and legislative areas, it is unclear how much progress is being achieved with regard to improving the lives of disabled persons in instrumental target areas. Progress that has occurred as a result of the Rules can be attributed to the three characteristics cited by the Special Rapporteur. First, the Rules are concise and focus on a single topic, equalization of opportunities, which makes them understandable and accessible to both Governments and people with disabilities. Second, their focus on country-level action suggests areas in which disability advocates can press for implementation. Third, their monitoring mechanism reinforces and assists advocacy efforts by the parties concerned.

Four years is a very short period of time in which to determine precisely those aspects of the Rules that can contribute to progress or may create obstacles. It is unlikely that the Rules would create obstacles, given their wide recognition and support. As in the case of the Long-term Strategy, consideration needs to be given to developing and testing methods and procedures for the formulation of options to further the implementation of the Rules, to deal with resource constraints, to set priorities, and to identify verifiable outcome measures.


C. Quantitative bases to assess the progress made and to identify the obstacles encountered in the implementation of the World Programme of Action

Data on disability have been actively compiled by the United Nations since the 1980s and were first published in 1990 as the Disability Statistics Compendium.11 In the 15 years since the adoption of the World Programme of Action, however, the estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO) that over 500 million of the world’s population are people with impairment or disability remains in wide use. Data on disability are significant by their absence in a recent review of data compendiums of select development reports prepared by the World Bank and by bodies and organizations of the United Nations system. Notable exceptions are the selected disability data included in the Human Development Report 199715 and survey data in the Atlas of South Asian Children and Women.16

Data collection, analysis and methodological work by the Statistics Division of the United Nations Secretariat indicate a growing body of national data on disability in the period since the end of the Decade but also great differences among countries in methods used to identify persons with disabilities. There is a need for international guidelines and standards for data collection on disability so that rates may be more comparable and more meaningful, both within and across countries. The Statistics Division has worked to develop statistical methodology for data collection and compilation on the population with disability, which is discussed in section IV below.

Concerning the use of available statistics to assess the situation of persons with disabilities, a report prepared by consultants for the United Nations Secretariat17 indicates that it is possible to draw certain conclusions about demographic patterns, education and economic activity among persons with disabilities. The report was based upon the first version of the United Nations disability statistics database18 and an analysis of more extensive material for four countries: Australia, Botswana, China and Mauritius:19

(a) Disability prevalence by age. In the four countries cited with recent survey or census data (Australia, Botswana, China and Mauritius), disability prevalence increases with age. After age 45, disability prevalence increases significantly with each decade of age. For instance, census data from Botswana indicate that persons aged 65 and over have disability rates eight times that of the total population, and survey data from Australia indicate a prevalence rate for severely handicapped persons which increased from twice that of the prevalence rate for all age groups for the 65-69 cohort to three times for the 70–74 cohort. The disability database suggests similar trends for impairment among the 55 reporting countries, with the exception of mental and intellectual disorders and speech impairments which are often higher among the young;

(b) Educational attainment. The disability database and findings from China and Mauritius suggest that educational attainment among persons with disabilities is considerably lower than that for the entire population. In Botswana, educational attainment levels for disabled persons are close to those of the entire population, although primary schooling is the most common level of educational attainment. In Australia, levels of educational attainment among disabled persons also are relatively close to those for the entire population up to the level of post-secondary education;

(c) Economic activity. Data available suggest that a smaller portion of the disabled population were economically active than the entire population. Moreover, disabled women had lower levels of labour force participation and higher levels of unemployment than the total female population.

An area of special statistical concern pertains to the collection of data on disabilities associated with anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordnance. Data available to the United Nations and from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies suggest the existence of some 110 million anti-personnel landmines in more than 60 countries, which maim or kill an estimated 500 persons per week. From a development point of view, it costs approximately 100 times more to remove a landmine than to place one. This is in addition to the indirect costs to society associated with lost productivity of those disabled by anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordnance, and the direct costs of their care and rehabilitation. The Department of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat currently compiles three sets of non-parametric and qualitative data: (a) demining programme reports in supported countries; (b) country and area reports; and (c) casualties and incidents.20


D. Factors influencing the implementation of the World Programme of Action

The first review and appraisal identified three factors that had influenced the implementation of the World Programme of Action resources, policies and institutional frameworks. These are considered below for a comparative analysis of trends.

1. Resource framework: knowledge, people, skills and finances

The global body of knowledge on disability issues has increased significantly since the end of the Decade. Advances in adaptive technologies and information and telecommunications capacities have resulted in new and expanded opportunities for accessibility and participation. These technological advances have been especially significant in fostering the establishment and development of virtual communities of interest.21 National capacity- building and methodological advances in the areas of early detection and rehabilitation are contributing to improved levels of living among children and young disabled persons. Financial constraints resulting from continued low levels of growth in most areas of the world can, however, influence the nature and pace of research and innovation in the field of disability. An appropriate priority for the personnel, technical and financial resources to further the goals of full participation and equality remains an urgent concern. Data in the Human Development Report 1997 indicate that developing countries as a group allocated on average in 1990, the most recent year for which there are comparable data, 2.1 per cent of gross domestic product on health; comparable data are not presented for the group of countries that are classified as industrialized.22

2. Policy framework

The policy framework for the World Programme of Action encourages a tripartite approach to its implementation and monitoring, which has continued with expanded participation by interested non-governmental organizations since the end of the Decade. Recognition in recent years of interaction among prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities has contributed to more effective implementation. Equating equalization of opportunity with the World Programme’s objectives on prevention and rehabilitation provided a framework for emergence of concern with the disability perspective in mainstream development and furthered analysis and design of disability-sensitive policies. The World Programme of Action remains a valid and comprehensive framework for policy design and evaluation from the disability perspective.

3. Institutional framework, including coordination mechanisms

Interested bodies and organizations of the United Nations system continue to use inter-agency mechanisms for consultation and to promote coordinated action in support of the World Programme of Action. An emerging trend, however, is for interested members of the system to undertake joint action on specific disability topics, sometimes in cooperation with interested non-governmental organizations. For instance, the Commission for Social Development, at its thirty-fifth session, was provided with a brief introduction to the joint cooperative effort of the United Nations and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) with the Academy for International Education, a non-governmental organization, in the organization of the Global Workshop on Children with Disabilities, held at Washington, D.C., from 5 to 7 February 1997. The Commission's consideration of the item is reflected in its recommendation to the Economic and Social Council of a draft resolution on children with disabilities.23

The continued development of the WHO International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH)24 represents a critical area for coordinated action. The International Classification plays a major role in the coding and development of classification schema. While efforts are currently focused on increased standardization and use of less pejorative terms concerning people with disabilities, an emerging issue is the definition of environmental factors appropriate to traditional ICIDH concerns. In the Standard Rules, it is noted in this regard that:

"The term ‘handicap’ means the loss or limitations of opportunities to take part in the life of the community on an equal level with others. It describes the encounter between the person with a disability and the environment."25

Although the term "handicap" has proved controversial, those elements that pertain to handicap within the ICIDH system, particularly independence, use of time, social integration and economic self-sufficiency, have proved beneficial in identifying areas of involvement that the World Programme of Action must foster. Progress made in the implementation of the World Programme has informed the Classification of the importance of environmental factors in enhancing or impeding equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities.

Two new coordination mechanisms have been introduced since the end of the Decade. The Special Rapporteur on Disability, assisted by a panel of experts, promotes action, principally at the interregional level, in support of the Standard Rules. The Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons (1993-2002) provides a framework for the promotion and coordination of action at the regional level.


10 Human Rights and Disabled Persons, Human Rights Study Series (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.92.XIV.4 and corrigendum).

11 Statistics on Special Population Groups, Series Y, No. 4 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.90.XVII.17).

12 For example, the international technical exchange organized by the National Federation of the Handicapped of Iceland, in cooperation with the Icelandic Ministry of Social Affairs, to consider strategies and measures for life-enhancing opportunities for people with disabilities, which was held at Reykjavik from 1 to 3 June 1994. In the area of equalization of opportunities, the Guinean Federation to Promote Associations of Disabled Persons organized, in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Employment of Guinea, the Western African Seminar on National Disability Legislation (15 May 1995), which was the first such exchange of its type in the region. The Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare of Ghana convened at Accra, from 21 to 25 August 1995, the first African regional seminar on national coordinating committees in the disability field. In Asia and the Pacific, the Government of Malaysia organized at Kuala Lumpur in December 1996 an inter-country seminar on multisectoral collaborative action for people with disabilities; and the Republic of the Philippines will organize at Manila, in December 1997, an Asia-Pacific conference on issues and strategies concerning national coordinating committees.

13 See E/CN.4/Sub.2/1996/27.

14 Ibid., chap. II.

15 UNDP, Human Development Report 1997 (London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), table 13. It is important to note that the data on people with disabilities range from 1985 to 1992. A review of the source data indicate that different definitions of disability are being used, that there are different levels of coverage among the population (the entire population or only certain cohorts) and that some data result from special surveys while others are census data. In summary, the data are not amenable for purposes of comparative analysis.

16 UNICEF, Atlas of South Asian Children and Women (Kathmandu, UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, 1996). Survey data are included for four factors whose absence or levels can result in impairment or disability: vitamin A deficiency, iodine deficiency, salt iodization rates and iron deficiency anaemia. The Atlas covers Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

17 Lawrence D. Haber and John E. Dowd, "A human development agenda for disability: statistical considerations" (unpublished paper submitted to Statistics Division of the United Nations Secretariat, 24 January 1994), p. 3.

18 DISTAT version 1, completed in 1988, contains disability statistics from national household surveys, population censuses and population on civil registers from 55 countries (see United Nations publication, Sales No. E.90.XVII.17).

19 Australia, "National disability survey" (1988), survey concerns severe handicap measures. Botswana, "National census of population and housing" (1991); census questions cover severe impairment measures. China, "National sample survey of the handicapped" (1987); survey concerns severe impairment measures. Mauritius, "National census of population and housing" (1990); census questions cover severe impairment measures.

20 Demining data of the United Nations are available on the Internet at, under the humanitarian affairs icon.

21 The concept of virtual communities of interest is discussed in Tom Peters, The Pursuit of WOW!(New York, Vantage, 1994) and in Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York, Knopf, 1995). See also note 31 below, on the impact of Internet-based technologies on empowering interested virtual communities of persons with disabilities in Singapore.

22 UNDP, Human Development Report 1997, table 13.

23 Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, Supplement No. 6 (E/1997/26-E/CN.5/1997/11), chap. I, draft resolution III. The draft resolution was subsequently adopted by the Council (resolution 1997/20).

24 WHO, International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (1980; reprinted 1993).

25 General Assembly resolution 48/96, annex, para. 18.

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