Around 15% of the global population – over a billion people – lives with some form of disability, of whom 2–4% experience significant difficulties in functioning. Many of these people require assistive technologies such as low-vision devices, wheelchairs or hearing aids. This number is expected to double to 2 billion by 2050.
Women are more likely to experience disability than men and older people more than young. Low- and middle-income countries have higher rates of disability than high-income countries, and the impact of disability on people in poorer areas is compounded by issues of accessibility and lack of health care services. Indigenous persons, internally displaced or stateless persons, refugees, migrants and prisoners with disability also face particular challenges in accessing services.
In recent years, the understanding of disability has moved away from a physical or medical perspective to one that takes into account a person’s physical, social and political context. Today, disability is understood to arise from the interaction between a person’s health condition or impairment and the multitude of influencing factors in their environment. Great strides have been made to make the world more accessible for people living with disability; however, much more work is required to meet their needs.
Disability is a compounding factor that impacts many aspects of a person’s life. People with disability experience poorer health outcomes, have less access to education and work opportunities, and are more likely to live in poverty than those without a disability. This can be caused by many factors including a physical lack of access to buildings and transportation, social stigma, lack of service provision and increased likelihood of being left out of decision-making that affects their wellbeing.
People with disability experience widespread barriers that other people often take for granted, including barriers in the health system, education, employment, transportation and community space. These gaps are exasperated in poorer or less developed communities.
WHO works to fully integrate people living with disability into Universal Health Coverage. In 2014, WHO Member States endorsed the WHO global disability action plan 2014–2021, which calls for the removal of barriers and improvements in access to health services and programmes; the strengthening and extension of rehabilitation, assistive devices and support services; and the enhanced collection of relevant and internationally comparable data on disability.
WHO supports countries to implement the Model Disability Survey (MDS), which is a general population survey that provides comprehensive information about disability in a country or region. The project aims to help Member States to develop policies and services, and to provide data to monitor the progress toward meeting obligations under the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
WHO launched the pioneering World report on disability in 2011 as a resource for policy makers, service providers, professionals and advocates for people with disability and their families.