United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons 1983-1992, World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons

This UN report concerns the Implementation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons, including the implementation of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs4/WPACDP.html

This documentation is courtesy the United Nations.

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The World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its 37th regular session on 3 December 1982, by its resolution 37/52. 1/


Objectives, Background and Concepts







Equalization of opportunities

Concepts adopted within the United Nations System

Current situation


General description

Disabilities in the developing countries

Special groups



Equalization of opportunities



Social questions

Disability and a new international economic order

Consequences of economic and social development

Proposals for the implementation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons



National action

Participation of disabled persons in decision-making

Prevention of impairment, disability and handicap


Equalization of opportunities


Physical environment

Income maintenance and social security

Education and training






Community action

Staff training

Information and public education

International action

General aspects

Human rights

Technical and economic cooperation

International assistance

Regional and Bilateral assistance

Information and public education

Monitoring and evaluation



1. 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.


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.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.


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/

7 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.

8 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.

9 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.

10 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.

11 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.

12 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.


A strategy of prevention is essential for reducing the incidence of impairment and disability. The main elements of such a strategy would vary according to a country's state of development, and are as follows:


  • The most important measures for prevention of impairment are: avoidance of war; improvement of the educational, economic and social status of the least privileged groups; identification of types of impairment and their causes within defined geographical areas; introduction of specific intervention measures through better nutritional practices; improvement of health services, early detection and diagnosis; prenatal and postnatal care; proper health care instruction, including patient and physician education; family planning; legislation and regulations; modification of life-styles; selective placement services; education regarding environmental hazards; and the fostering of better informed and strengthened families and communities;


  • To the extent that development takes place, old hazards are reduced and new ones arise. These changing circumstances require a shift in strategy, such as nutrition intervention programmes directed at specific population groups most at risk owing to vitamin A deficiency; improved medical care for the aging; training and regulations to reduce accidents in industry, in agriculture, on the roads and in the home; and the control of environmental pollution and of the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol. In this connection, the WH0 strategy for Health for All by the Year 2000 through primary health care should be given proper attention.

14 Measures should be taken for the earliest possible detection of the symptoms and signs of impairment, to be followed immediately by the necessary curative or remedial action, which can prevent disability or at least lead to significant reductions in the severity of disability and can often prevent its becoming a lasting condition. For early detection it is important to ensure adequate education and orientation of families and technical assistance to them by medical social services.


Rehabilitation usually includes the following types of services:


  • Early detection, diagnosis and intervention;


  • Medical care and treatment;


  • Social, psychological and other types of counselling and assistance;


  • Training in self-care activities, including mobility, communication and daily living skills, with special provisions as needed, e g., for the hearing impaired, the visually impaired and the mentally retarded;


  • Provision of technical and mobility aids and other devices;


  • Specialized education services;


  • Vocational rehabilitation services (including vocational guidance), vocational training, placement in open or sheltered employment;


  • Follow-up.

16 In all rehabilitation efforts, emphasis should be placed on the abilities of the individual, whose integrity and dignity must be respected. The normal development and maturation process of disabled children should be given the maximum attention . The capacities of disabled adults to perform work and other activities should be utilized.

17 Important resources for rehabilitation exist in the families of disabled persons and in their communities. In helping disabled persons, every effort should be made to keep their families together, to enable them to live in their own communities and to support family and community groups who are working with this objective. In planning rehabilitation and supportive programmes, it is essential to take into account the customs and structures of the family and community and to promote their abilities to respond to the needs of the disabled individual.

18 Services for disabled persons should be provided, whenever possible, within the existing social, health, education and labour structures of society. These include all levels of health care; primary, secondary and higher- education, general programmes of vocational training and placement in employment; and measures of social security and social services. Rehabilitation services are aimed at facilitating the participation of disabled persons in regular community services and activities. Rehabilitation should take place in the natural environment, supported by community-based services and specialized institutions. Large institutions should be avoided. Specialized institutions, where they are necessary, should be organized so as to ensure an early and lasting integration of disabled persons into society.

19 Rehabilitation programmes should make it possible for disabled persons to take part in designing and organizing the services that they and their families consider necessary. Procedures for the participation of disabled persons in the decision-making relating to their rehabilitation should be provided for within the system. When people such as the severely mentally disabled may not be able to represent themselves adequately in decisions affecting their lives, family members or legally designated agents should take part in planning and decision-making.

20 Efforts should be increased to develop rehabilitation services integrated in other services and make them more readily available. These should not rely on imported costly equipment, raw material and technology. The transfer of technology among nations should be enhanced and should concentrate on methods that are functional and relate to prevailing conditions.

Equalization of opportunities

To achieve the goals of "full participation and equality", rehabilitation measures aimed at the disabled individual are not sufficient. Experience shows that it is largely the environment which determines the effect of an impairment or a disability on a person's daily life. A person is handicapped when he or she is denied the opportunities generally available in the community that are necessary for the fundamental elements of living, including family life, education, employment, housing, financial and personal security, participation in social and political groups, religious activity, intimate and sexual relationships, access to public facilities, freedom of movement and the general style of daily living.

22 Societies sometimes cater only to people who are in full possession of all their physical and mental faculties. They have to recognize the fact that, despite preventive efforts, there will always be a number of people with impairments and disabilities, and that societies have to identify and remove obstacles to their full participation. Thus, whenever pedagogically possible, education should take place in the ordinary school system, work be provided through open employment and housing be made available as to the population in general. It is the duty of every Government to ensure that the benefits of development programmes also reach disabled citizens. Measures to this effect should be incorporated into the general planning process and the administrative structure of every society. Extra services which disabled persons might need should, as far as possible, be part of the general services of a country.

23 The above does not apply merely to Governments. Anyone in charge of any kind of enterprise should make it accessible to people with disabilities. This applies to public agencies at various levels, to non-governmental organizations, to firms and to private individuals. It also applies to the international level.

24 People with permanent disabilities who are in need of community support services, aids and equipment to enable them to live as normally as possible both at home and in the community should have access to such services. Those who live with such disabled persons and help them in their daily activities should themselves receive support to enable them to have adequate rest and relaxation and an opportunity to take care of their own needs

25 The principle of equal rights for the disabled and non-disabled implies that the needs of each and every individual are of equal importance, that these needs must be made the basis for the planning of societies, and that all resources must be employed in such a way as to ensure, for every individual, equal opportunity for participation. Disability policies should ensure the access of the disabled to all community services.

26 As disabled persons have equal rights, they also have equal obligations. It Is their duty to take part in the building of society. Societies must raise the level of expectation as far as disabled persons are concerned, and in so doing mobilize their full resources for social change. This means, among other things, that young disabled persons should be provided with career and vocational opportunities - not early retirement pensions or public assistance.

27 Persons with disabilities should be expected to fulfil their role in society and meet their obligations as adults. The image of disabled persons depends on social attitudes based on different factors that may be the greatest barrier to participation and equality. We see the disability, shown by the white caner crutches, hearing aids and wheelchairs, but not the person. What is required is to focus on the ability, not on the disability of disabled persons.

28 All over the world, disabled persons have started to unite in organizations as advocates for their own rights to influence decision-makers in Governments and all sectors of society. The role of these organizations includes providing a voice of their own, identifying needs, expressing views on priorities, evaluating services and advocating change and public awareness. As a vehicle of self-development, these organizations provide the opportunity to develop skills in the negotiation process, organizational abilities, mutual support, information-sharing and often vocational skills and opportunities. In view of their vital importance in the process of participation, it is imperative that their development be encouraged.

29 Mentally handicapped people are now beginning to demand a voice of their own and insisting on their right to take part in decision-making and discussion. Even those with limited communication skills have shown themselves able to express their point of view. In this respect, they have much to learn from the self-advocacy movement of persons with other disabilities. This development should be encouraged.

30 Information should be prepared and disseminated to improve the situation of disabled persons. The cooperation of all public media should be sought to bring about presentations that will promote an understanding of the rights of disabled persons aimed at the public and the persons with disabilities themselves, and that will avoid reinforcing traditional stereotypes and prejudices.

Concepts adopted within the United Nations system

In the Charter of the United Nations, the reaffirmation of the principles of peace, the faith in human rights and fundamental freedoms, the dignity and worth of the human person and the promotion of social justice are given primary importance.

32 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right of all people, without distinction of any kind, to marriage; property ownership; equal access to public services; social security; and the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. The International Covenants on Human Rights, 3/ the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons, 4/ and the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons 5/ give specific expression to the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

33 The Declaration on Social Progress and Development 6/ proclaims the necessity of protecting the rights of physically and mentally disadvantaged persons and assuring their welfare and rehabilitation. It guarantees everyone the right to and opportunity for useful and productive labour.

34 Within the United Nations Secretariat, a number of offices carry out activities related to the above concepts as well as to the World Programme of Action. They include: the Division of Human Rights; the Department of International Economic and Social Affairs; the Department of Technical Cooperation for Development; the Department of Public Information; the Division of Narcotic Drugs; and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The regional commissions also have an important role: the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), the Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva (Switzerland), the Economic Commission for Latin America in Santiago (Chile), the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok (Thailand) and the Economic Commission for Western Asia in Baghdad (Iraq).

35 Other organizations and programmes of the United Nations have adopted approaches related to development that will be significant in implementing the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled

Persons. These include:


  • The mandate contained in General Assembly resolution 3405 (XXX) on new dimensions in technical cooperation, which directs the United Nations Development Programme, interalia, to take into account the importance of reaching the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society when responding to Governments' requests for help in meeting their most urgent and critical needs and which encompasses the concepts of technical cooperation among developing countries;


  • The concept adopted by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) of basic services for all children and the strategy adopted by it in 1980 to emphasize strengthening family and community resources to assist disabled children in their natural environments;


  • The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with its programme for disabled refugees;


  • The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is concerned, among other things, with the prevention of impairments among Palestine refugees and the lowering of social and physical barriers which confront disabled members of the refugee population;


  • The concepts of specific measures of disaster preparedness and prevention for those already disabled, and of the prevention of permanent disability as a result of injury or treatment received at the time of a disaster, advanced by the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator (UNDRO);


  • The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS), with its concern about physical barriers and general access to the physical environment;


  • The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); the activities of UNIDO cover the production of drugs essential for the prevention of disability as well as of technical devices for the disabled.

36 The specialized agencies of the United Nations system, which are involved in promoting, supporting and carrying out field activities, have a long record of work related to disability. Programmes of disability prevention, nutrition, hygiene, education of disabled children and adults, vocational training, job placement and others represent a store of experience and know-how which opens up opportunities for further accomplishments and, at the same time, makes it possible to share these experiences with governmental and non-governmental organizations concerned with disability matters.

These agencies and their programmes include:


  • The basic needs strategy of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the principles set forth in ILO recommendation No. 99 concerning vocational rehabilitation of the disabled , 1955;


  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with its emphasis on the relation between nutrition and disability;


  • The concept of adapted education recommended by an expert group of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on education of disabled persons, which has been reinforced by two guiding principles of the Sundberg Declaration: 7/


    1. Disabled persons shall receive from the community services adapted to their specific personal needs;


    2. Through decentralization and sectorization of services, the needs of disabled persons shall be taken into account and satisfied within the framework of the community to which they belong;


  • The World Health Organization's programme of health for all by the year 2000 and the related primary health care approach, through which the member States of the World Health Organization have already committed themselves to preventing diseases and impairments leading to disabilities. The concept of primary health care, as elaborated by the International Conference on Primary Health Care held at Alma-Ata in 1978, and the application of this concept to the health aspects of disability, are described in the World Health Organization's policy on this subject, approved by the World Health Assembly in 1978;


  • The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has approved recommendations to contracting States concerning facilities of movement and provision of facilities for disabled passengers;


  • The Executive Committee of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), which has adopted a recommendation inviting all national postal administrations to improve access to their facilities for disabled persons.


continued...Current situation

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