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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality

  The United Nations and Disabled Persons -The First Fifty Years

Contents | Chapter 1 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

The United Nations and Disabled Persons: A Chronology

The United Nations Secretariat and the Economic and Social Council are the principal United Nations bodies concerned with disability issues. They focus on promoting the rights of persons with physical disabilities, such as blindness and deafness. Projects concentrate on disability prevention and rehabilitation.

1946 - The Social Commission, a subsidiary body to the organization, is entrusted with social questions. At its first session it establishes the Temporary Social Welfare Committee.

1950 - At its sixth session the Social Commission considers two reports: "The social rehabilitation of the handicapped" and "The social rehabilitation of the blind". The disabled and rehabilitation are discussed at the Geneva Conference, 26 February - 3 March, attended by the Secretariat, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Refugee Organization, (IRO) and the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), later renamed the United Nations Children's Fund. The Commission agrees on the need to establish international standards for the education, treatment, training and placement of disabled persons, with particular attention to be given to the blind in underdeveloped areas. The Economic and Social Council also recommends that States consider measures to help handicapped persons.

November 22 – On the inter-state level, the Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Materials provides for the exemption of customs duties on the importation of certain goods as listed in the Annex of the Agreement. Among the privileged goods are "Articles for the Blind."

1951 - At its seventh session, the Social Commission focuses on the problems of social rehabilitation of the disabled, drawing attention to the problem of adaptation and rehabilitation from an integrated perspective.

1952 - At its eighth session the Social Commission discusses international rehabilitation for the physically disabled. Programmes approved by the United Nations, ILO, WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF and IRO fall under ten headings: a new approach to disability, the education of public opinion, a complete rehabilitation programme, developing rehabilitation services, training rehabilitation personnel, organizing and financing rehabilitation services, the contribution of the United Nations and the specialized agencies, the contribution of non-governmental organizations, and methods of coordination.

1953 - At its ninth session the Social Commission expresses interest in programmes designed for the promotion of services for the handicapped which stress restoring them to an independent and productive role in society.

1956 - International Social Service Review is founded to raise awareness of disability issues and to emphasize rehabilitation programmes throughout the world.


Chapter I


"We want to unite all people with disabilities to work together and go forward. That, really, is independence. Our philosophy is to enjoy equal life, to have equal opportunities and full participation, like other people, in all aspects of life. We believe we should make our own choices. And we hope we are no longer passive participants or just recipients of services. We should be the active organizers." --Karen Ngai, Rehabilitation Alliance, Hong Kong

Over the course of the United Nations' first half century, people with disabilities have gone from passively accepting whatever was made available to them to actively asserting strength and confidence in their own abilities to lead self-reliant and independent lives. The following brief history shows how the United Nations’ efforts have helped to bring about this transformation.

There are over 500 million persons with disabilities worldwide--or 10 per cent of the global population. Approximately two thirds live in developing countries. In certain developing countries nearly 20 per cent of the general population is in some way disabled; if the impact on their families is taken into account, 50 per cent of the population is affected.

The number of disabled persons continues to increase in tandem with growth of the world population. Factors causing the increase in their number include war and other forms of violence, inadequate medical care, and natural and other disasters.

Not surprisingly, many of the disabled are poor. The overwhelming majority--perhaps 80 per cent--live in isolated rural areas. Almost that many live in areas where the services needed to help them are unavailable. Too often their lives are handicapped by physical and social barriers in society which hamper their full participation. Because of this, and in all parts of the world, they often face a life that is segregated and debased, and without help, many will live in isolation and insecurity.

"Disability is not a tragedy, it’s an inconvenience." --A disabled woman and leader of a non-governmental organization The United Nations has dedicated itself to defending the basic human rights of all persons, including those with disabilities. Through its development work, it has shifted the focus, in ways that have often inspired national legislation and policy-making, from people's disabilities to their abilities.

"Far too many people consider us a peculiar thing. When we go around in public, they stare at us as if we were a passing creature. For me disability is like a prison but my (wheel)chair is like a window so I can show my face to the sun." --Andre Soewardjo, Chesire Homes, Indonesia

The United Nations was founded on the principle of equality for all. The Preamble to the Charter affirms the dignity and worth of every human being and gives primary importance to the promotion of social justice. Persons with disabilities are, de facto, entitled to all the fundamental human rights upheld by the Charter and other human rights instruments.

The General Assembly established the foundation for the promotion and protection of human rights in 1948, when it proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of the Declaration states that each person has "the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control".

Further anti-discrimination principles were established by such human rights instruments as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which came into force in 1966. Together they form the most comprehensive international code of binding legal provisions in the area of human rights. The two Covenants develop and supplement the provisions of the Universal Declaration, and the three instruments together make up what has come to be known as the International Bill of Human Rights. Disability is perhaps the area in which the importance of recognizing the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as both Covenants do, is most evident and sharp.

This historical overview and accompanying chronology will trace the activities of the United Nations in relation to the disabled population. It will also discuss some of the activities undertaken by the specialized agencies of the United Nations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), which has helped to equalize opportunities for the disabled while providing technical assistance; the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which supports childhood disability programmes and technical support in collaboration with Rehabilitation International; and the International Labour Office (ILO), which works to improve access to labour markets and to increase economic integration by establishing international labour standards and implementing technical cooperation projects.

"In my country we have a lot of disabled people. We have a population of 8 million. But, the disabled people number 1.4 million. Our country is still undeveloped. Two decades ago, we had armed conflict, we had civil war in our country. So, the only way that disabled people can live is by helping themselves...We can connect to the culture. For example, some people who have no wheel-chair ramp, build one of bamboo. They are then connected to each other. A wheelchair can go over stairs. This is one way of independent living." --Yi Vesna, Disabled Peoples International, Cambodia

The United Nations’ commitment to assisting the disabled has been evolving since it began addressing the needs of individuals injured in the Second World War. Injuries resulting from violent conflicts continue to receive the Organization’s attention today in various organs and agencies of the system. For example, the Mine Clearance and Policy Unit of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Secretariat, works throughout the world to rid former war zones of deadly anti-personnel mines which are responsible for disabling hundreds of thousands of people.

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