Disability tends to be seen as an anomaly or even an abnormality, but as disability activists constantly strive to emphasize, it’s a condition that we will all inevitably experience, since ageing itself is a form of disability. This is why activists and theorists sometimes refer to non-disabled people as “temporarily abled,” to call attention to the fact that something as simple as twisting an ankle can cause “disability.”
The universality of disability is underscored in the results of a new international survey from the World Health Organization and the World Bank, who announced that nearly 15 percent of the world’s population – or almost 1 in every 7 people – can be categorized as “disabled.” And this estimate is only likely to grow as the global population ages.
In the introduction to the report, disabled scientist Stephen Hawking writes that we have a “moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.”
The report is quite impressive, and I encourage you to take a look at the full document. The researchers ran into some problems in creating a global concept of “disability,” since, as NPR blogger Joanne Silberner points out, “many countries don’t collect numbers carefully, and definitions of disability differ from place to place.”
The most common disability worldwide is depression, followed by hearing and visual problems – perhaps not the kind of disability that one thinks of immediately, but obviously impariments that are significant and far-reaching.
Disability is clearly a development issue, especially since poverty may increase the risk. But the authors are careful to frame disability as a human rights issue, one where prevention efforts should not stigmatize. “Viewing disability as a human rights issue is not incompatible with prevention of health conditions,” the report reads, “as long as prevention respects the rights and dignity of people with disabilities, for example, in the use of language and imagery.”
All of the report has implications for how we address disability and make sure that being disabled does not mean that people cannot function as full members of their socities. After all, since it’s a condition we will all experience, it’s in our best interest to make sure that disability becomes an important human rights issue. Sometimes this means rethinking the way we view assistance to disabled people, not as a luxury but as a necessity. After all, as the report authors write, “Any persons with disabilities need assistance and support to achieve a good quality of life and to be able to participate in social and economic life on an equal basis with others.”
The solutions – involving communities, building up networks of caregivers, and creating enabling environments – are ambitious. But they’re necessary for the kind of equality that all people deserve, so that quality of life is not a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.