The UN and Persons with Disabilities
United Nations Commitment to
Advancement of the Status of Persons with Disabilities
More than half a billion persons are disabled as a result of mental, physical or
sensory impairment and no matter which part of the world they are in, their lives are
often limited by physical or social barriers. Approximately 80 per cent of the world's
disabled population lives in developing countries.
Disabled persons often suffer from discrimination, because of prejudice or ignorance,
and also may lack access to essential services.
This is a "silent crisis" which affects not only disabled persons themselves
and their familites, but also the economic and social development of entire societies,
where a significant reservoir of human potential often goes untapped. Considering that
disabilities are frequently caused by human activities, or simply by lack of care,
assistance from the entire international community is needed to put this "silent
emergency" to an end.
From its early days the United Nations has sought to advance the status of disabled
persons and to improve their lives. The concern of the United Nations for the well-being
and rights of disabled persons is rooted in its founding principles, which are based on
human rights, fundamental freedoms and equality of all human beings. As affirmed by the
United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants
on Human Rights and related human rights instruments, persons with disabilities are
entitled to exercise their civil, political, social and cultural rights on an equal basis
with non-disabled persons.
The contribution of United Nations specialized agencies to advance the situation of
disabled persons is noteworthy: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) by providing special education; the World Health Organization (WHO)
by providing technical assistance in health and prevention; the United Nations
International Children's Fund (UNICEF) by supporting childhood disability programmes and
providing technical assistance in collaboration with Rehabilitation International (a
non-governmental organisation); the International Labour Organization (ILO) by improving
access to the labour market and increasing economic integration through international
labour standards and technical cooperation activities.
First Steps: Evolution of Human Rights of Disabled Persons
In the 1940s and 1950s the United Nations was active in promoting the well-being and
rights of persons with physical disabilities through a range of social welfare approaches.
The United Nations provided assistance to Governments in disability prevention and the
rehabilitation of disabled persons through advisory missions, workshops for the training
of technical personnel and the setting up of rehabilitation centres. Seminars and study
groups were means of exchanging information and experience among experts in disability.
Fellowships and scholarships were awarded for trainers. As a result of initiatives from
within the community of disabled persons, the 1960s saw a fundamental reevaluation of
policy and established the foundation for the full participation by disabled persons in
In the 1970s, United Nations initiatives embraced the growing international concept of
human rights of persons with disabilities and equalization of opportunities for them. In
1971, the General Assembly adopted the "Declaration on the Rights of Mentally
Retarded Persons". 1/ This Declaration stipulates that mentally retarded persons are
accorded the same rights as other human beings, as well as specific rights corresponding
to their needs in the medical, educational and social fields. Emphasis was put on the need
to protect disabled persons from exploitation and provide them with proper legal
procedures. In 1975, the General Assembly adopted the "Declaration on the Rights of
Disabled Persons", 2/ which proclaims the equal civil and political rights of
disabled persons. This Declaration sets the standard for equal treatment and access to
services which help to develop capabilities of persons with disabilities and accelerate
their social integration.
The International Year of Disabled Persons
In 1976, the General Assembly proclaimed 1981 as the International
Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP). It called for a plan of action at the national,
regional and international levels, with an emphasis on equalization of opportunities,
rehabilitation and prevention of disabilities.
World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons
A major outcome of the International Year of Disabled Persons was the formulation of
the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons,
adopted by the General Assembly in December 1982.
Women and Disability
The WPA recognizes women's needs as requiring special attention. The consequences of
disablement are particularly serious for women, because disabled women are discriminated
against on double grounds: gender and disability. Therefore, they have less access to
essential services such as health care, education and vocational rehabilitation.
Women are also specially affected by disability because they are often entrusted with
the responsibility of caring for disabled persons in the community. Furthermore, women are
more exposed to the risk of becoming disabled because of neglect and certain forms of
abuse and harmful traditional practices directed against them.
United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons
In order to provide a time frame during which Governments and organizations could
implement the activities recommended in the World Programme of Action, the General
Assembly proclaimed 1983-1992 the United Nations Decade of Disabled
International Day of Disabled Persons
Marking the end of the Decade of Disabled Persons, the General Assembly proclaimed 3
December as the International Day of Disabled Persons. The Day
was initially established to commemorate the Anniversary of the General Assembly's
adoption of the World Programme of Action.
The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities
Among the major outcomes of the Decade of Disabled Persons was the adoption, by the
General Assembly, of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of
Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities in 1993. The rules serve as an instrument
for policy-making and as a basis for technical and economic cooperation.
Recent Developments at the United Nations in Disability Policy
Recent United Nations World Conferences reflect the growing awareness that persons with
disabilities have both special concerns and needs that require serious consideration of
the international community. All of the recent conferences - United Nations Conference on
the Environment (Rio, 3-4 June 1992), the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 14-25
June 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 5-13
September 1994), the World Summit for Social Development
(Copenhagen, 6-12 March 1995), the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 4-15
September 1995), Habitat II (Istanbul 3-14 June 1996) - have addressed the situation of
people with disabilities and made recommendations to rectify past discriminatory practices
as well as to protect and promote their rights to participate fully in all aspects of the
society as citizens of their countries.
The United Nations and the specialized agencies continue their efforts to assist Member
States in attaining the equality of all people, including persons with disabilities, in
social life and development. The work of the United Nations concentrates on improving the
situation of disabled persons by promotion and monitoring the implementation of the
Standard Rules and the World Programme of Action. The United Nations continues to provide
on request technical and financial support for national and international projects. The
Statistics Division of the Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy
Analysis plays an important role in developing statistical concepts and indicators,
gathering relevant country information and preparing technical manuals and publications on
The work of the United Nations will increasingly focus on equalization of opportunities
for persons with disabilities. One of the most important concerns is accessibility: to new
technologies, in particular information and communications technologies, as well as to the
physical environment. The notion of "mainstreaming" will also be given
prominence, that is, including a disability dimension in policy recommendations covering a
wide spectrum of social and economic concerns.
The Special Rapporteur on Disability
In 1994, Mr. Bengt Lindqvist was designated by the Secretary-General of the United
Nations as First Special Rapporteur on Disability of the Commission for Social
Development. His duties are to assist in the monitoring of the implementation of the
Standard Rules and, in the discharge of his functions, he divides his time between
advisory functions and establishing a dialogue with States and local non-governmental
organizations to further the implementation of the Standard Rules. The Special Rapporteur
works closely with a panel of experts, composed of representatives of international
organizations of persons with disabilities, and with the United Nations Secretariat.
In June 2003, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed Sheikha Hessa Khalifa bin
Ahmed al-Thani (Qatar) as the Special Rapporteur on Disability of the United Nations
Commission for Social Development for the period 2003-2005.