Nearly 1 in 7 People on Earth are Disabled, Survey Says

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.


Jez wildmoon
jayne TURNER6 years ago

Jason H - depression is classed as disability because it affects the person for a variety of reasons. Some forms of depression are more like stress, and can go away if their causes are removed. Other forms of depression are caused by things like spinal injuries, where 'impulses' to the brain are prevented from travelling up the spine. So someone disabled by spinal injury will also be prone to depression, and not just because they feel bad about the physical inability to do something! Chemical imbalance within the brain can also cause depression, people don't realise it can be a form of mental illness. Depression can be treated in a variety of ways, but it's more about coping than curing.

Kara C.
Kara C6 years ago

A sprained ankle is not a disability is hurts and is annoying, you will live and walk again. A broken spine is disability, you may die if its bad enough and there is a good chance you will never walk again.
These people need to define disability better, mentioning that disabilities are long term and severely debilitating, not short term and annoying.

Sheri P.
Sheri P6 years ago

I am hearing impaired and it's a pain in the ass. Not nearly enough TVs/movies have subtitles and it always seems like someone is making fun of my deafness...I can only imagine having a worse disability...

Petra Luna
Petra Luna6 years ago

I'm not surprised. Maybe if we quit abusing everything from the planet to each other, we'd have fewer disabled people and maybe some would be less severely disabled.

annamaria s.

May you really think disability is really disability 100% ? In ITALY, time by time- thru a check spot - it is being ' unveiled ' blinds drive a car, 'incurable' diseases are false etc etc

annamaria s.

May you really think disability is really disability 100% ? In ITALY, time by time- thru a check spot - it is being ' unveiled ' blinds drive a car, 'incurable' diseases are false etc etc

Chavonne Harvey
Chavonne H6 years ago

but not many receive disability and still have to work or go hungry, very sad.

Johann M.
Johann Mitchell6 years ago

The US Government is aiding and abetting people who are preventing people from following their doctors' orders by allowing HUD subsidized housing operators to make their own rules that have to be followed by people who can't afford to live anywhere else, and this has been causing disability.

I live in HUD subsidized housing, and after numerous pleas to let me follow the orders of my doctor and get a portable air conditioner so I can filter the pollen out of the air and not aggravate my allergies, I STILL am not allowed to buy one. Allergies aggravated by Paget's disease of the bone (in my skull) has made the pollen I'm exposed to because of this fill my sinuses (which can't drain properly because of Pagets) and have caused 3 bouts of antibiotics (I'm about to go for a 4th), several sinus infections, two ear infections, two ER visits, and deafness in my right ear.

When I complained to HUD, I was told "You have to follow the rules of the place you live. If you don't like it there, move elsewhere. But almost all of the HUD subsidized housing is like that."

Jane R.
Jane R6 years ago

Many people are disabled in one way or another but not all disabilities are equal. As you stated the visual or hearing impared are "disabled", but most forms of disability don't require special treatment or privileges. I disagree that ageing is a form of disability. It's a part of life. If being elderly is a disability then being a child is a disability also. Are children disabled for not being able to provide for theirselves? Not being able to cook their own meals, drive a car or earn their own living makes them disabled? Then we are all disabled in some way!! The figure should be 100% of people are disabled!!!

Jason H.
Jason H.6 years ago

Um... maybe some will call me insensitive, but I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that depression is a disability. Isn't depression brought on by our current circumstances, and can go away after awhile, especially if treated?