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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 1960s
The Social Commission begins to develop monitoring mechanisms for the various United Nations rehabilitation programmes, specialized agencies, governmental and non-governmental organizations. A study and a survey are conducted on the administrative and legislative aspects of rehabilitation programmes and on facilities for training personnel in rehabilitation.

All in all, an increased awareness is developing regarding the importance of new rehabilitation strategies.

1969 - The General Assembly adopts the Declaration on Social Progress and Development and affirms, inter alia , the fundamental freedoms and principles of peace articulated in the Charter of the United Nations. Article 19 addresses the provision of health, social security, and social welfare services for all persons, aiming at the rehabilitation of the mentally and physically disabled so as to facilitate their integration into society.


Chapter II

What is a disability?

The World Health Organization, in its International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps, makes a distinction between impairment, disability and handicap. These three concepts are defined by it as follows:

(a) Impairment is "any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function". Impairments are disturbances at the level of the organ which include defects in or loss of a limb, organ or other body structure, as well as defects in or loss of a mental function. Examples of impairments include blindness, deafness, loss of sight in an eye, paralysis of a limb, amputation of a limb; mental retardation, partial sight, loss of speech, mutism.

(b) Disability is a "restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being". It describes a functional limitation or activity restriction caused by an impairment. Disabilities are descriptions of disturbances in function at the level of the person. Examples of disabilities include difficulty seeing, speaking or hearing; difficulty moving or climbing stairs; difficulty grasping, reaching, bathing, eating, toileting.

(c) A handicap is a "disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role that is normal (depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors) for that individual". The term is also a classification of "circumstances in which disabled people are likely to find themselves". Handicap describes the social and economic roles of impaired or disabled persons that place them at a disadvantage compared to other persons. These disadvantages are brought about through the interaction of the person with specific environments and cultures. Examples of handicaps include being bedridden or confined to home; being unable to use public transport; being socially isolated.

Handicaps are "concerned with the disadvantages experienced by the individual as a result of impairments and disabilities; thus, handicaps reflect interaction with and adaptation to the individuals' surroundings." --Disabled leader of a non-governmental organization

Disabled people do not form a homogenous group. For example, the mentally retarded, the visually, hearing and speech impaired, those with restricted mobility or with so-called "medical disabilities" all encounter different barriers, of different kinds, which have to be overcome in different ways.

The following definitions are developed from the perspective in the World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons:

(a) Prevention is any measures aimed at preventing the onset of mental, physical and sensory impairments (primary prevention) or at preventing impairment, when it has occurred, from having negative physical, psychological and social consequences (secondary prevention);

(b) Rehabilitation is a goal-oriented and time-limited process aimed at enabling an impaired person to reach the optimum mental, physical and/or social functional level, thus providing the individual with the tools to change her or his own life. It can involve measures intended to compensate for a loss of function or a functional limitation (for example, by technical aids) and other measures intended to facilitate social adjustment or readjustment;

(c) Equalization of opportunities is the process through which the general system of society, such as the physical and cultural environment, housing and transportation, social and health services, educational and work opportunities, cultural and social life, including sports and recreational facilities, are made accessible to all.

Prevention and rehabilitation, then, relate to an individual’s particular attributes (or lack thereof) and may entail special needs. Equalization relates to the process of building a suitable environment to reasonably accommodate those needs.

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