Global disability: the silent epidemic

Emmeline Carr

20345710461_ac08de90cd_k“Disability is a natural part of human experience that in no way diminishes a person’s right to participate fully in all aspects of life” [Schalock, p. 211]

Over recent years, major epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola and MERS have gained major media coverage and policy attention, to the extent that they are no longer considered to be epidemics. In the background, persons with disabilities – major, life-altering issues for both the person and their families – have continued to struggle with both their physical and mental limitations, caused by a range of medical and environmental factors. Traditionally, disability is treated solely as a health issue. This article will initially define disability, and then explain the paradigm shift that has taken place within the field of international disability policy research.

It would be simple, and perhaps expected, to begin this article by giving statistics that demonstrate the relative number of people living with disabilities across the globe, as well as how many of those people are living in ‘developing’ nations. In all honesty: this is an impossible task. The numbers simply do not exist. Debilitating illnesses are diagnosed every single day, road traffic accidents frequently place ‘normal’ people into wheelchairs, and children are born with a disability right from their very first breath. The reality of the situation, as Zola describes, is that “the entire population is ‘at risk’ from chronic illness and disability” and there will never be any “fixed number” of persons with disability across the globe [Zola, p. 401]. Current data is inaccurate, inadequate and not yet able to provide us with a precise picture of the population.

As the Global Report on Disability states, “disability can be conceptualized a continuum from minor difficulties in functioning to major impact on a person’s life” [WHO/WB, p. 22]. Although usually the product of a medical condition, disability is “not purely the result of some physical or mental impairment…but rather the fit of such impairments with the social, attitudinal, architectural, medical, economic and political environment” [Zola, p. 401]. A fully comprehensive disability policy includes a “balanced combination of prevention, rehabilitation and measures for equalization of opportunity” [USAID, p. 3]. Creating an inclusive disability policy encompasses development, human rights, economic and legal implications for nations, and therefore requires a cross-sector approach that will engage key stakeholders rather than just creating impractical policy.

Disability has historically been an international policy issue from the moment it was understood that discrimination hinders economic development, violates human rights, perpetuates poverty and reinforces derogatory social practices and stereotypes. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (1975) and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) are the main pieces of legislation that have sought to combat this, but have not made a significant impact on the day-to-day quality of life for people living with a disability across the globe. Exclusionary factors create societal understandings of disability that lead it to be seen as “unnatural” and create a sense of ‘otherness’ [Imrie, p. vii]. As Imrie explains, persons with disabilities “remain subject to forms of state control which continue to reinforce the pejorative image of disability as an abnormality” [Imrie, p. vii]. It is also important, and rare, to distinguish between different types of disabilities – the experience of a person with a learning disability is very different to those with paralysis, which similarly is worlds away from the way a person with a visual disability experiences the world.

In response to some of these shortcomings, there has been a transition in the way disability policy is treated by the international community. Although initially considered to be an issue solely for the field of global health, national governments began to realize that there were economic benefits to protecting the disabled, especially through welfare support and employment programs. Very recently, the transition has continued such that the treatment of persons with disability is now being considered a human rights concern. As a UN Enable report explains, “most disability legislation and policies are based on the assumption that persons with disabilities simply are not able to exercise the same rights as non-disabled persons”. International disability policy truly multi-faceted – a combination of traditional social policy, non-discrimination policy and labor market integration, although usually with a tendency for one element of policy to replace another instead of complementing it.

It is also to significant to note that there is not as much of a divide in adequate disability policy between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries as the literature suggests. Although there are clear areas for improvement, problems faced by persons with disabilities are not isolated to less ‘developed’ parts of the world. Froe example, there are only two Members of British Parliament who self-identify as disabled, despite the growing disabled population they represent. This in turn demonstrates that poor disability policy is not just a result of underdevelopment, and moving forward needs more than just integrating disability-friendly practices into the development sector.

In order to create real change, the international community needs to actively work together to change social stigmas worldwide. Disability policy “clearly requires governments to do much more than merely abstain from taking measures which might have a negative impact on persons with disabilities” [UN Enable]. While some nations are setting a strong example, others continue to allow de facto discrimination to take place. The best way to move forward globally is to utilize the law as a tool of social change, grounded in the “principle of universality, reinforced by the principles of equality and non-discrimination” [UN Enable]. Using international human rights treaties to reinforce a new global norm will, at the very least, open up the conversation related to the proper treatment of persons with disabilities.

Disability is a truly global issue, yet is somehow lost or forgotten on a regular basis. Marginalization and a lack of acknowledgement of the challenges disabled persons face is perpetuating a crisis in which the stigma surrounding disability is only growing at a time when it should be shrinking. . It’s time that we reopened the case and reconsidered our approach.

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