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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality

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World Programme of Action Concerning
Disabled Persons

Page 4 of 10

Current situation

General description

There is a large and growing number of persons with disabilities in the world today. The estimated figure of 500 million is confirmed by the results of surveys of segments of population, coupled with the observations of experienced investigators. In most countries, at least one person out of 10 is disabled by physical, mental or sensory impairment, and at least 25 per cent of any population is adversely affected by the presence of disability.

The causes of impairments vary throughout the world, as do the prevalence and consequences of disability. These variations are the result of different socio-economic circumstances and of the different provisions that each society makes for the well-being of its members.

A survey carried out by experts has produced the estimate of at least 350 million disabled persons living in areas where the services needed to assist them in overcoming their limitations are not available. To a large extent, disabled persons are exposed to physical, cultural and social barriers which handicap their lives even if rehabilitation assistance is available

Many factors are responsible for the rising numbers of disabled persons and the relegation of disabled persons to the margin of society. These include:

The relationship between disability and poverty has been clearly established. While the risk of impairment is much greater for the poverty-stricken, the converse is also true. The birth of an impaired child, or the occurrence of disability in the family, often places heavy demands on the limited resources of the family and strains on its morale, thus thrusting it deeper into poverty. The combined effect of these factors results in higher proportions of disabled persons among the poorest strata of society. For this reason, the number of affected families living at the poverty level steadily increases in absolute terms. The negative impact of these trends seriously hinders the development process.

Existing knowledge and skills could prevent the onset of many impairments and disabilities, could assist affected people in overcoming or minimizing their disabilities, and could enable nations to remove barriers which exclude disabled persons from everyday life.

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Disabilities in the developing countries

The problems of disability in developing countries need to be specially highlighted. As many as 80 per cent of all disabled persons live in isolated rural areas in the developing countries. In some of these countries, the percentage of the disabled population is estimated to be as high as 20 and, thus, if families and relatives are included, 50 per cent of the population could be adversely affected by disability. The problem is made more complex by the fact that, for the most part, disabled persons are also usually extremely poor people. They often live in areas where medical and other related services are scarce, or even totally absent, and where disabilities are not and cannot be detected in time. When they do receive medical attention, if they receive it at all, the impairment may have become irreversible. In many countries, resources are not sufficient to detect and prevent disability and to meet the need for the rehabilitation and supportive services of the disabled population. Trained personnel, research into newer and more effective strategies and approaches to rehabilitation and the manufacturing and provision of aids and equipment for disabled persons are quite inadequate.

In such countries, the disability problem is further compounded by the population explosion, which inexorably pushes up the number of disabled persons in both proportional and absolute terms. There is, thus, an urgent need, as the first priority, to help such countries to develop demographic policies to prevent an increase in the disabled population and to rehabilitate and provide services to the already disabled.

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Special groups

The consequences of deficiencies and disablement are particularly serious for women. There are a great many countries where women are subjected to social, cultural and economic disadvantages which impede their access to, for example, health care, education, vocational training and employment. If, in addition, they are physically or mentally disabled, their chances of overcoming their disablement are diminished, which makes it all the more difficult for them to take part in community life. In families, the responsibility for caring for a disabled parent often lies with women, which considerably limits their freedom and their possibilities of taking part in other activities.

For many children, the presence of an impairment leads to rejection or isolation from experiences that are part of normal development. This situation may be exacerbated by faulty family and community attitudes and behaviour during the critical years when children's personalities and self-images are developing.

In most countries the number of elderly people is increasing, and already in some as many as two thirds of disabled people are also elderly. Most of the conditions which cause their disability (for example, arthritis, strokes, heart disease and deterioration in hearing and vision) are not common among younger disabled people and may require different forms of prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support services.

With the emergence of "victimology" as a branch of criminology, the true extent of injuries inflicted upon the victims of crime, causing permanent or temporary disablement, is only now becoming generally known.

Victims of torture who have been disabled physically or mentally, not by accident of birth or normal activity, but by the deliberate infliction of injury, form another group of disabled persons.

There are over 10 million refugees and displaced persons in the world today as a result of man-made disasters. Many of them are disabled physically and psychologically as a result of their sufferings from persecution, violence and hazards. Most are in third-world countries, where services and facilities are extremely limited. Being a refugee is in itself a handicap, and a disabled refugee is doubly handicapped.

Workers employed abroad often find themselves in a difficult situation associated with a series of handicaps resulting from differences in environment, lack or inadequate knowledge of the language of the country of immigration, prejudice and discrimination, lack or deficiency of vocational training, and inadequate living conditions. The special position of migrant workers in the country of employment exposes them and their families to health hazards and increased risk of occupational accidents which frequently lead to impairment or disability. The situation of disabled migrant workers may be further aggravated by the necessity for them to return to the country of origin, where, in most cases, special services and facilities for the disabled are very limited.

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There is a steady growth of activities to prevent impairment, such as the improvement of hygiene, education and nutrition; better access to food and health care through primary health care approaches, with special attention to mother and child care; counselling parents on genetic and prenatal care factors; immunization and control of diseases and infections; accident prevention; and improving the qual- ity of the environment. In some parts of the world, such measures have a significant impact on the incidence of physical and mental impairment.

For a majority of the world's population, especially those living in countries in the early stages of economic development, these preventive measures effectively reach only a small proportion of the people in need. Most developing countries have yet to establish a system for the early detection and prevention of impairment through periodic health examinations, particularly for pregnant women, infants and young children.

In the Leeds Castle Declaration on the Prevention of Disablement of 12 November 1981, an international group of scientists, doctors, health administrators and politicians called attention to, among others, the following practical measures to prevent disablement:

It is becoming increasingly recognized that programmes to prevent impairment or to ensure that impairments do not escalate into more limiting disabilities are less costly to society in the long run than having to care later for disabled persons. This applies, for instance, not least to occupational safety programmes, a still neglected field of concern in many countries.

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Rehabilitation services are often provided by specialized institutions. However, there exists a growing trend towards placing greater emphasis on the integration of services in general public facilities.

There has been an evolution in both the content and the spirit of the activities described as rehabilitation. Traditional practice viewed rehabilitation as a pattern of therapies and services provided to disabled persons in an institutional setting. Often under medical authority. This is gradually being replaced by programmes which, while still providing qualified medical, social and pedagogical services, also involve communities and families and help them to support the efforts of their disabled members to overcome the disabling effects of impairment within a normal social environment. Increasingly it is being recognized that even severely disabled persons can, to a great extent, live independently if the necessary support services are provided. The number requiring care in institutions is much smaller than had previously been assumed and even they can, to a great-extent, live a life that is independent in its essential elements.

Many disabled persons require technical aids. In some countries the technology needed to produce such items is well developed, and highly sophisticated devices are manufactured to assist the mobility, communication and daily living of disabled individuals. The costs of such items are high, however, and only a few countries are able to provide such equipment.

Many people need simple equipment to facilitate mobility, communication and daily living. Such aids are produced and available in some countries. In many other countries, however, they cannot be obtained because of a lack of their availability and/or of high cost. Increasing attention is being given to the design of simpler, less expensive devices, with local methods of production which are more easily adapted to the country concerned, more appropriate to the needs of most disabled persons and more readily available to them.

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