Skip navigation links Sitemap | About us | FAQs

UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality

[Return to World Programme of Action Overview] [Next Page]

World Programme of Action Concerning
Disabled Persons

Page 1 of 10

Objectives, Background and Concepts


The purpose of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons is to promote effective measures for prevention of disability, rehabilitation and the realization of the goals of ''full participation'' of disabled persons in social life and development, and of ''equality''. This means opportunities equal to those of the whole population and an equal share in the improvement in living conditions resulting from social and economic development. These concepts should apply with the same scope and with the same urgency to all countries, regardless of their level of development.

^Return to top


More than 500 million people in the world are disabled as a consequence of mental, physical or sensory impairment. They are entitled to the same rights as all other human beings and to equal opportunities. Too often their lives are handicapped by physical and social barriers in society which hamper their full participation. Because of this, millions of children and adults in all parts of the world often face a life that is segregated and debased.

An analysis of the situation of disabled persons has to be carved out within the context of different levels of economic and social development and different cultures. Everywhere, however, the ultimate responsibility for remedying the conditions that lead to impairment and for dealing with the consequences of disability rests with Governments. This does not weaken the responsibility of society in general, or of individuals, or of organizations Governments should take the lead in awakening the consciousness of populations regarding the gains to be derived by individuals and society from the inclusion of disabled persons in every area of social, economic and political life. Governments must also ensure that people who are made dependent by severe disability have an opportunity to achieve a standard of living equal to that of their fellow citizens. Non-governmental organizations can, in different ways, assist Governments by formulating needs, suggesting suitable solutions and providing services complementary to those provided by Governments. Sharing of financial and material resources by all sections of the population, not omitting the rural areas of developing countries, could be of major significance to disabled persons by resulting in expanded community services and improved economic opportunities.

Much disability could be prevented through measures taken against malnutrition, environmental pollution, poor hygiene, inadequate prenatal and postnatal care, water-borne diseases and accidents of all types . The international community could make a major breakthrough against disabilities caused by poliomyelitis, tetanus, whooping-cough and diphtheria, and to a lesser extent tuberculosis, through a world-wide expansion of programmes of immunization.

In many countries, the prerequisites for achieving the purposes of the Programme are economic and social development, extended services provided to the whole population in the humanitarian area, the redistribution of resources and income and an improvement in the living standards of the population. It is necessary to use every effort to prevent wars leading to devastation, catastrophe and poverty, hunger, suffering, diseases and mass disability of people, and therefore to adopt measures at all levels to strengthen international peace and security, to settle all international disputes by peaceful means and to eliminate all forms of racism and racial discrimination in countries where they still exist. It would also be desirable to recommend to all States Members of the United Nations that they maximize the use of their resources for peaceful purposes, including prevention of disability and satisfaction of the needs of disabled persons. All forms of technical assistance that help developing countries to move towards these objectives can support the implementation of the Programme. The realization of these objectives will, however, require extended periods of effort, during which the number of disabled persons is likely to increase. Without effective remedial action, the consequences of disability will add to the obstacles to development. Hence, it is essential that all nations should include in their general development plans immediate measures for the prevention of disability, for the rehabilitation of disabled persons and for the equalization of opportunities.

^Return to top


The following distinction is made by the World Health Organization, in the context of health experience, between impairment, disability and handicap:

"Impairment: Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function.

"Disability: Any 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.

"Handicap: A disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that, limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal, depending on age, sex, social and cultural factors, for that individual." 2/

Handicap is therefore a function of the relationship between disabled persons and their environment. It occurs when they encounter cultural, physical or social barriers which prevent their access to the various systems of society that are available to other citizens. Thus, handicap is the loss or-limitation of opportunities to take part in the life of the community on an equal level with others.

Disabled people do not form a homogeneous group. For example, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded, the visually, hearing and speech impaired and 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 that perspective. The relevant terms of action proposed in the World Programme are defined as prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities.

Prevention means 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.

Rehabilitation means a goal-oriented and time-limited process aimed at enabling an impaired person to reach an optimum mental, physical and/or social functional level, thus providing her or him 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.

Equalization of opportunities means 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.

^Return to top


2/ International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH), World Health Organization, Geneva, 1980.

[Return to World Programme of Action Overview] [Next Page]

Home | Sitemap | About us | FAQs | Contact us

United Nations, 2006
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Division for Social Policy and Development