Independent Living Institute


United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons 1983-1992


This documentation is courtesy the United Nations.


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.

38 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.

39 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

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

41 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.

42 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.

Disabilities in the developing countries

43 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.

44 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.

Special groups

45 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.

46 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.

47 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.

48 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.

49 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.

50 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.

51 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.


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.

53 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.

54 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:

3 Impairment arising from malnutrition, infection and neglect could be prevented by inexpensive improvement in primary health.

4 ... Many disabilities of later life can be postponed or averted. There are promising lines of research for the control of hereditary and degenerative conditions . . .

5 ... Disability need not give rise to handicap. Failure to apply simple remedies very often increases disability, and the attitudes and institutional arrangements of society increase the chance of disability placing people at a disadvantage. Sustained education of the public and of professionals is urgently needed.

6 Avoidable disability is a prime cause of economic waste and human deprivation in all countries, industrialized and developing. This loss can be reduced rapidly.

The technology which will prevent or control most disablement is available and is improving. What is needed is commitment by society to overcome the problems. The priority of existing national and international health programmes must be shifted to ensure the dissemination of knowledge and technology.

7 Although technology for preventive and remedial control of most disabilities exists, the remarkable recent progress in biomedical research promises revolutionary new tools which could greatly strengthen all interventions. Both basic and applied research deserve support over the coming years.

55 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.


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.

57 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.

58 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.

59 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.

Equalization of opportunities

The rights of persons with disabilities to participate in their societies can be achieved primarily through political and social action.

61 Many countries have taken important steps to eliminate or reduce barriers to full participation. Legislation has in many cases been enacted to guarantee to disabled persons the rights to, and opportunities for, schooling, employment and access to community facilities, to remove cultural and physical barriers and to proscribe discrimination against disabled persons. There has been a movement away from institutions to community-based living. In some developed and developing countries, the emphasis in schooling is increasingly on "open education" with a corresponding decrease in institutions and special schools. Methods of making public transport systems accessible have been devised, as well as methods of making information accessible for sensory-disabled persons. Awareness of the need for such measures has increased. In many cases, public education and awareness campaigns have been launched to educate the public to alter its attitudes and actions towards disabled persons.

62 Often, disabled persons have taken the lead in bringing about an improved understanding of the process of equalization of opportunities. In this context, they have advocated their own integration into the mainstream of society.

63 Despite such efforts, disabled persons are yet far from having achieved equal opportunities and the degree of integration of disabled persons into society is yet far from satisfactory in most countries.


64 At least 10 per cent of children are disabled. They have the same right to education as non-disabled persons and they require active intervention and specialized services. But most disabled children in developing countries receive neither specialized services nor compulsory education.

65 There is a great variation from some countries with a high educational level for disabled persons to countries where such facilities are limited or non-existent.

66 There is a lack in existing knowledge of the potential of disabled persons. Furthermore, there is often no legislation which deals with their needs and a shortage of teaching staff and facilities. Disabled persons have in most countries so far not benefitted from a lifelong education.

67 Significant advances in teaching techniques and important innovative developments have taken place in the field of special education and much more can be achieved in the education of disabled persons. But the progress is mostly limited to a few countries or only a few urban centres.

68 The advances concern early detection, assessment and intervention, special education programmes in a variety of settings, with many disabled children able to participate in a regular school setting, while others require very intensive programmes.


69 Many persons with disabilities are denied employment or given only menial and poorly remunerated jobs. This is true even though it can be demonstrated that with proper assessment, training and placement, the great majority of disabled persons can perform a large range of tasks in accordance with prevailing work norms. In times of unemployment and economic distress, disabled persons are usually the first to be discharged and the last to be hired. In some industrialized countries experiencing the effects of economic recession, the rate of unemploy- ment among disabled job-seekers is double that of able-bodied applicants for jobs. In many countries various programmes have been developed and measures taken to create jobs for disabled persons. These include sheltered and production workshops, sheltered enclaves, designated positions, quota schemes, subsidies for employers who train and subsequently engage disabled workers, cooperatives of and for the disabled, etc. The actual number of disabled workers employed in either regular or special establishments is far below the number of employable disabled workers. The wider application of ergonomic principles leads to adaptation of the workplace, tools, machinery and equipment at relatively little cost and helps widen employment opportunities for the disabled.

70 Many disabled persons, particularly In the developing countries, live in rural areas. When the family economy is based on agriculture or other rural occupations and when the traditional extended family exists, it may be possible for most disabled persons to be given some useful tasks to perform. As more families move from rural areas to urban centres, as agriculture becomes more mechanized and commercialized, as money transactions replace barter systems and as the institution of the extended family disintegrates, the vocational plight of disabled persons becomes more severe . For those living in urban slums, competition for employment is heavy, and other economically productive activity is scarce. Many disabled persons in such areas suffer from enforced inactivity and become dependent; others must resort to begging.

Social questions

71 Full participation in the basic units of society˙family, social groups and community˙is the essence of human experience. The right to equality of opportunity for such participation is set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and should apply to all people, including those with disabilities. In reality, however, disabled persons are often denied the opportunities of full participation in the activities of the socio-cultural system of which they are a part. This deprivation comes about through physical and social barriers that have evolved from ignorance, indifference and fear.

72 Attitudes and behaviour often lead to the exclusion of disabled persons from social and cultural life. People tend to avoid contact and personal relationships with those who are disabled. The pervasiveness of the prejudice and discrimination affecting disabled persons and the degree to which they are excluded from normal social intercourse produce psychological and social problems for many of them.

73 Too often. the professional and other service personnel with whom disabled persons come into contact fail to appreciate the potential for participation by disabled persons in normal social experiences and thus do not contribute to the integration of disabled individuals and other social groups.

74 Because of these barriers, it is often difficult or impossible for disabled persons to have close and intimate relationships with others. Marriage and parenthood are often unattainable for people who are identified as "disabled", even when there is no functional limitation to preclude them. The needs of mentally handicapped people for personal and social relationships, including sexual partnership, are now increasingly recognized.

75 Many persons with disabilities are not only excluded from the normal social life of their communities but in fact confined in institutions. While the leper colonies of the past have been partly done away with and large institutions are not as numerous as they once were, far too many people are today institutionalized when there is nothing in their condition to justify it.

76 Many disabled persons are excluded from active participation in society because of doorways that are too narrow for wheelchairs; steps that cannot be mounted leading to buildings, buses, trains and aircraft; telephones and light switches that cannot be reached; sanitary facilities that cannot be used . Similarly they can be excluded by other types of barriers, for example oral communication which ignores the needs of the hearing impaired and written information which ignores the needs of the visually impaired. Such barriers are the result of ignorance and lack of concern; they exist despite the fact that most of them could be avoided at no great cost by careful planning. Although some countries have enacted legislation and launched campaigns of public education to eliminate such ob- stacles, the problem remains a crucial one.

77 Generally, existing services, facilities and social actions for the prevention of impairment, the rehabilitation of disabled persons and their integration into society are closely linked to the Governments' and society's willingness and ability to allocate resources. income and services to disadvantaged population groups.

Disability and a new international economic order

The transfer of resources and technology from developed to developing countries as envisaged within the framework of the new international economic order, as well as other provisions for strengthening the economies of developing nations, would, if implemented, be of benefit to the people of these countries, including the disabled. Improvement of economic conditions in the developing countries, particularly their rural areas, would provide new employment opportunities for disabled persons and needed resources to support measures for prevention, re- habilitation and the equalization of opportunities. The transfer of appropriate technology, if properly managed, could lead to the development of industries specializing in the mass production of devices and aids for dealing with the effects of physical, mental or sensory impairments.

79 The International Development Strategy for the Third United Nations Development Decade 8/ states that particular efforts should be made to integrate the disabled in the development process and that effective measures for prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities are therefore essential. Positive action to this end would be part of the more general effort to mobilize all human resources for development. Changes in the international economic order will have to go hand in hand with domestic changes aimed at achieving full participation by disadvantaged population groups.

Consequences of economic and social development

To the extent that development efforts are successful in bringing about better nutrition, education, housing, improved sanitary conditions and adequate primary health care, the prospects of preventing impairment and treating disability greatly improve. Progress along these lines may also be especially facilitated in such areas as:

81 Since economic development leads to alterations in the size and distribution of the population, to modifications in life styles and to changes in social structures and relationships, the services needed to deal with human problems are generally not being improved and expanded rapidly enough. Such imbalances between economic and social development add to the difficulties of integrating disabled persons into their communities.

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



The objectives of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons are 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". In implementing the World Programme due regard has to be paid to the special situation of developing countries and, in particular, of the least developed countries. The immensity of the task of improving living conditions for the whole population and the general scarcity of resources make the attainment of the objectives of the Programme much more difficult in these countries. At the same time, it should be recognized that the implementation of the World Programme of Action in itself will make a contribution to the development process through the mobilization of all human resources and the full participation of the entire population. Though some countries may already have initiated or carried out some of the actions recommended in this Programme, more needs to be done. This applies also to countries with a high general standard of living.

83 Since the situation of the disabled is closely connected with overall development at the national level, the solution of problems in developing countries depends to a very large extent on the creation of adequate international conditions for faster social and economic development. Accordingly, the establishment of a new international economic order is of direct relevance to the implementation of the objectives of the Programme It is particularly essential that the flow of resources to developing countries be substantially increased, as agreed upon in the International Development Strategy for the Third United Nations Development Decade.

84 The realization of these goals will require a multisectoral and multi-disciplinary global strategy for combined and coordinated policies and actions relevant to the equalization of opportunities of disabled persons, effective rehabilitation services and measures for prevention.

85 Disabled persons and their organizations should be consulted in the further development of the World Programme of Action and in its implementation. To this end, every effort should be made to encourage the formation of organizations of disabled persons at the local, national, regional and international levels. Their unique expertise, derived from their experience, can make significant contributions to the planning of programmes and services for disabled persons. Through their discussion of issues they present points of view most widely representative of all concerns of disabled persons. Their impact on public attitudes warrants consultation with them and as a force for change they have significant influence on making disability issues a great priority. The disabled themselves should have a substantive influence in deciding the effectiveness of policies, programmes and services designed for their benefit. Special efforts should be made to involve mentally handicapped persons in this process.

National action

The World Programme of Action is designed for all nations. The time-span for its implementation and the choice of items to be implemented as a priority will, however, vary from nation to nation depending on the existing situation and their resource constraints, levels of socio-economic development, cultural traditions, and their capacity to formulate and implement the actions envisaged in the Programme.

87 National Governments bear the ultimate responsibility for the implementation of the measures recommended in this section. Owing, however, to constitutional differences between countries, both local authorities and other bodies within the public and private sectors will be called upon to implement the national measures contained in the World Programme of Action.

88 Member States should urgently initiate national long-term programmes to achieve the objectives of the World Programme of Action; such programmes should be an integral component of the nation's general policy for socio-economic development.

89 Matters concerning disabled persons should be treated within the appropriate general context and not separately. Each ministry or other body within the public or private sector responsible for, or working within, a specific sector should be responsible for those matters related to disabled persons which fall within its area of competence. Governments should establish a focal point (for example, a national commission, committee or similar body) to look into and follow the activities related to the World Programme of Action of various ministries, of other government agencies and of non-governmental organizations.

Any mechanism set up should involve all parties concerned, including organizations of disabled persons. The body should have access to decision makers at the highest level.

90 To implement the World Programme of Action, it is necessary for Member States:

Participation of disabled persons in decision-making

91 Member States should increase their assistance to organizations of disabled persons and help them organize and coordinate the representation of the interests and concerns of disabled persons.

92 Member States should actively seek out and encourage in every possible way the development of organizations composed of or representing disabled persons. Such organizations, in whose membership and governing bodies disabled persons, or in some cases relatives, have a decisive influence, exist in many countries. Many of them have not the means to assert themselves and fight for their rights.

93 Member States should establish direct contacts with such organizations and provide channels for them to influence government policies and decisions in all areas that concern them Member States should give the necessary financial support to organizations of disabled persons for this purpose.

94 Organizations and other bodies at all levels should ensure that disabled persons can participate in their activities to the fullest extent possible.

Prevention of impairment, disability and handicap

95 The technology to prevent and control most disablement is available and improving but is not always fully utilized. Member States should take appropriate measures for the prevention of impairment and disability and ensure the dissemination of relevant knowledge and technology.

96 Coordinated programmes of prevention at all levels of society are needed. They should include:


97 Member States should develop and ensure the provision of rehabilitation services necessary for achieving the objectives of the World Programme of Action.

98 Member States are encouraged to provide for all people the health care and related services needed to eliminate or reduce the disabling effects of impairment.

99 This includes the provision of social, nutritional, health and vocational services needed to enable disabled individuals to reach optimum levels of functioning. Depending on such factors as population distribution, geography and stages of development, services can be delivered through the following channels:

100 Member States should ensure the availability of aids and equipment appropriate to the local situation for all those to whose functioning and independence they are essential It is necessary to ensure the provision of technical aids during and after the rehabilitation process. Follow-up repair services and replacement of aids that are obsolete are also needed.

101 It is necessary to make certain that disabled persons who need such equipment have the financial resources as well as the practical opportunities for obtaining them and learning to use them . Import taxes or other procedures that block the ready availability of aids and materials which cannot be manufactured in the country and must be obtained from other countries should be eliminated. It is important to support local production of aids that are suited to the technological, social and economic conditions under which they will be used Development and production of technical aids should follow the overall technological development of a specific country.

102 To stimulate local production and development of technical aids, Member States should consider establishing national centres with a responsibility to support such local developments. In many cases existing special schools, institutes of technology, etc., could serve as a basis for this. Regional cooperation in this connection should be considered.

103 Member States are encouraged to include within the general system of social services personnel competent to provide counselling and other assistance needed to deal with the problems of disabled persons and their families.

104 When the resources of the general social service system are inadequate to meet these needs, special services may be offered until the quality of the general system has been improved.

105 Within the context of available resources, Member States are encouraged to initiate whatever special measures may be necessary to ensure the provision and full use of services needed by disabled persons living in rural areas, urban slums and shanty towns.

106 Disabled persons should not be separated from their families and communities. The system of services must take into account problems of transportation and communication; the need for supporting social, health and education services; the existence of primitive and often hazardous living conditions; and, especially in some urban slums, social barriers that may inhibit people's readiness to seek or accept services. Member States should assure an equitable distribution of these services to all population groups and geographical areas according to need.

107 Health and social services for mentally ill persons have been particularly neglected in many countries. The psychiatric care of persons with mental illness should be supplemented by the provision of social support and guidance to these persons and their families, who are often under particular strain. Where such services are available, the length of stay and the probability of renewed referral to institutions are lessened. In cases where mentally retarded persons are additionally afflicted with problems of mental illness, provisions are necessary to ensure that health care personnel are aware of the distinct needs related to retardation.

continued...Equalization of opportunities