January 2018, No. 4 Vol. LIV 2017, Global Citizenship

My disability awareness journey started in the early 1990s, when I worked as an elementary school teacher in a little neighbourhood in Beirut, Lebanon. As my students helped me realize that they each have unique abilities, I had to acknowledge that our education system lacked policies, resources and professional training necessary to address existing barriers that inhibit successful and inclusive classroom instruction. This sparked my interest and passion for research in special education.

Almost a decade ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, which were ratified on 3 May 2008. The adoption of the Convention followed decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. The focus of the movement was to establish the public perception of persons with disabilities as individuals who can claim their rights, remain active members of society, and make free and informed decisions regarding their lives. The Convention reaffirms that persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy the full range of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It ensures that persons with disabilities may effectively exercise their rights, and identifies areas where these rights have been violated and where protection must be reinforced.

Since the beginning of the disability rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, American society has focused on disassociating disability from inferiority (Blacher and Baker, 2007). This movement forced the Government to outlaw educational, social and employment segregation of citizens with disabilities (Hastings and others, 2005). Due to growing awareness raised by the disabilities rights movement, the Government of the United States has taken steps towards the transformation of the lives of people with disabilities, as well as towards changing societal perceptions and beliefs regarding this segment of the population (Hastings and others, 2005).

The first law that treated disability as a civil right rather than a medical issue was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Prior to that, it was thought that disability was a medical condition that needed to be cured before anyone could expect full participation in society. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required non-discrimination on the basis of disability for businesses that receive funding from the federal Government. That legislation did not really solve the issues inhibiting employment of individuals with disabilities or interfering with their participation in the workforce, but it offered a new way of looking at disability. This in turn led to the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which was modelled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and further amended in 2008. ADA defined disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” (ADA, 104 Stat. 330).


According to the American Community Survey (ACS), conducted annually by the United States Census Bureau, the overall percentage of people with disabilities in the United States in 2015 was 12.6 per cent. In 2011, the World Report on Disability stated that there were over a billion people, about 15 per cent of the world’s population, who had some form of disability (World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank, 2011). These reports indicate that disability prevalence across countries varies depending upon income, age and gender. Low- and middle-income countries, for example, have higher disability prevalence compared to high-income countries. Adults age 65 and older are more likely to be disabled than working-age people, and women suffer a higher risk of disability than men.

WHO predicts disability prevalence to rise because of ageing populations and the higher risk of disability in older people, as well as the global increase in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health disorders.

Although disability is rather common, it is hard to obtain an exact estimate of the number of people with disabilities, as there are cultural differences in the ways countries define, perceive and measure disability. It requires an understanding of the complexity of this heterogeneous group of individuals who share little in common besides experiencing a disability. This presents a theoretical challenge, since diverse perceptions of disabilities may impact the disclosure of the type of disability. Families’ fears of stigma and isolation further affect the rates. Also, estimating the prevalence varies from country to country. In low-income countries disability prevalence is often recorded as very low because of limited resources and certain methodologies. Some of their cultural perceptions present potential harm to people with disabilities who believe that they are of less value to society and see themselves as inferior citizens destined to fight an insuperable battle to create a suitable place for themselves within communities (Blacher and Baker, 2007).


Looking back to the civil rights movement, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and many United States Supreme Court cases and laws, it is clear that we have advanced.  The world is a better place for people with disabilities than it once was. The civil rights movement attempted to unify and create a cohesive society where everyone might be given equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination. Yet it is difficult to compare the struggle for civil rights with that of the disability movements. A person who is blind, or who has hearing impairment, or someone who has a physical disability will need to overcome considerable barriers in order to integrate into the greater society and to be properly accommodated.  

People with disabilities face barriers on a daily basis. WHO defines barriers as “factors in a person’s environment that, through their absence or presence, limit functioning and create disability—for example, inaccessible physical environments, a lack of appropriate assistive technology, and negative attitudes towards disability” (2011, p. 302). According to research, often the most difficult barrier is overcoming stereotypes of people with disabilities. Whether born from ignorance, fear, misunderstanding or hatred, certain attitudes and perceptions can become barriers inhibiting people with disabilities from pursuing their dreams and aspirations. The most pervasive negative attitudes involve focusing on persons’ limitations rather than on their abilities. As a first step, we need to disavow low expectations for people with disabilities. We must treat them as smart, talented, productive individuals who have as much to contribute to the workforce as anyone else. When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked why her husband did so much for his country and for the world despite his disability, she said, “No, no, no! He did those things because of his disability.” Negative attitudes result in denying persons with disabilities the basic human and civil rights enjoyed by the larger community (Reiter and Bryen, 2010). Most individuals with disabilities feel that they have encountered negative perceptions and have been judged as different and less worthy at some point in their lives, because of an irrelevant characteristic, trait or personal choice. The experience of discrimination is, in this way, truly universal. It is so influential and powerful not only for people without disabilities, but for people with disabilities themselves. It’s very hard to expect much of yourself when others don’t expect much of you.


Regrettably, because of the barriers and discrimination individuals with disabilities still face, they must resort to self-advocacy. The movement began in Sweden in the 1960s, when a group of people with intellectual disabilities drew up a list of requests about how they wanted services delivered and what they wanted from their service providers. Back then, what these pioneers did was a novel idea, but not anymore. Self-advocacy helps people with disabilities to understand their rights and responsibilities, stand up for themselves and make choices about their own lives. It allows them to speak out and overcome the tyranny of low expectations. Self-advocacy is intended to highlight and define what individuals with disabilities need and deserve. Thanks to the self-advocacy movement the quality of life for people with disabilities has been vastly improved. Self-advocacy continues as an international civil rights movement by and for people with developmental disabilities.


It is time to raise awareness and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and promote their acceptance and inclusion around the world at local, regional, national and international levels. The disability rights movement that emerged from the civil rights movements has evolved into policies shifting “towards community and educational inclusion, and medically-focused solutions have given way to more interactive approaches recognizing that people are disabled by environmental factors as well as by their bodies” (WHO and World Bank, 2011, p. 3). Policy movements help build organizational capacity. Advocacy movements help raise awareness of disability issues, promote inclusive development, support the advancement of rights and the empowerment of people with disabilities helping them to represent themselves rather than being represented by others (Barron and Amerena, 2007). Despite all the changes and progress made in the last several decades, we are still struggling to place individuals’ abilities first. As a society, once we accept that people have different abilities, our responsibility becomes including everyone and finding possible ways to remove the barriers. It is a social responsibility to help people with disabilities to live independent and full lives, and it becomes easier to recognize and address challenges that people with disabilities experience. It is a social responsibility to make the world a better place. It is the right of every individual with a disability to have a chance. The only way to fulfil this goal is through international cooperation that is intended to respect the dignity and promote  the rights of people with disabilities.     


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Public Law No. 101-336 of 26 July.

Barron, Tanya, and Penelope Amerena (2007). Introduction. In Disability and Inclusive Development, Tanya Barron and Penelope Amerena, eds. London, Leonard Cheshire International.

Blacher Jan, and Bruce L. Baker (2007). Positive impact of intellectual disability on families. American Journal on Mental Retardation, vol. 112, No. 5 (September), pp. 330-48.

Hastings, Richard P., and others (2005). Systems analysis of stress and positive perceptions in mothers and fathers of pre-school children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 35, No. 5 (October), 635-44.

Reiter, Shunit, and Diane N. Bryen (2010). Attitudinal barriers to rehabilitation. In International Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation, John H. Stone and Maurice Blouin, eds. New York, Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange. Available from: https://sphhp.buffalo.edu/rehabilitation-science/research-and-facilities....

United Nations General Assembly resolution 61/106. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, A/RES/61/106 (13 December 2006). Available from: http://undocs.org/A/RES/61/106. 

United States of America, Department of Commerce, States Census Bureau. American Community Survey. American FactFinder, Table S1810.
Available from: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.....

World Health Organization and the World Bank (2011). World Report on Disability. Geneva. Available from http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/report.pdf.