The prevalence of disability is matched by its impact. A staggering one billion people across the globe live with a physical or mental condition that limits their movements, senses, or abilities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This equates to an incredible 15 percent of the world’s population. Of these one billion, 93 million children and 720 million adults experience “significant difficulties in functioning”.
It goes without saying that living with a disability can have a huge impact on someone’s life. Their additional challenges are both numerous and daunting. Daily tasks that are easy for most can be insurmountable to the disabled. Add to that the great deal of remaining prejudice and discrimination in many societies, and it is a toxic mix.
The WHO defines a disabled person as someone who has “a problem in body functioning or structure, an activity limitation, and/or who has a difficulty in executing a task or action”. Furthermore, the number of people who fall within this definition is increasing. This is partly due to ageing populations and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and mental ill health.
There are four types of disability: intellectual (difficulty communicating, learning difficulties and retaining information), physical (temporarily or permanently, someone’s physical capacity and/or mobility) sensory (affecting one or more senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste and/or spatial awareness) and mental health issues (thinking, emotional state and behaviours). The most common disability of people under the age of 60 is depression, a fact that surprises people.
Across the world, improved diagnoses are helping people understand - and live with - disabilities such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Autism-Spectrum Disorders. These are just some. The list is endless.
According to the WHO, most of those living with disability across the world are in developing countries. Women and children are most affected, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to violence, abuse, and/or rape. In some of the poorest countries in the world – Somalia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mozambique – disability can an opportunity for those with bad intentions.
This is especially true when you consider that the disabled are far more likely to be at the lower end of society’s socioeconomic scale. Study after study shows a significant link between disability and poverty. The disabled are more exposed to poverty in part because they are more likely to live in dangerous and unhealthy living conditions, such as with inadequate housing or a lack of clean water.
Alas, that is just the beginning. Their access to education is more restricted - UNESCO says 90 percent of disabled children in developing countries do not attend any form of education. As a result, they fall easily into unemployment, and even when they do find a job, they tend to be paid less well than their non-disabled peers. Likewise, their ability to access treatment can be hindered, with higher healthcare costs making help simply unaffordable to many of the world’s disabled. All of which makes them vulnerable to other diseases. It is, in many ways, a vicious circle. Talking of vicious, the WHO says that in some countries, a quarter of all disabilities stem from injuries or violence. It is no surprise that UNICEF thinks that 30 percent of young people living homeless are disabled.
All of this matters at both the policy level and the personal level. Most of us, at some point in our lives, will face some sort of disability, whether temporarily or permanent. When we do, we will see for ourselves how this disadvantage is perceived by society. It was only comparatively recently that the disabled were not seen as complete human beings. They were marginalised and kept out of sight, often in closed care homes. For many, life was extremely isolated.
Today, by and large, people with disabilities are far better integrated into society, but they still face the risk of ‘being forgotten’, and many still suffer discrimination. Sadly, their needs are too often overlooked by governments and international aid organizations, leaving the disabled to feel socially excluded.
In recent years, and at great cost, some countries have improved disabled access to public spaces. Others have gone to great lengths to make sure disabled voices are heard and not disregarded. But problems remain. For instance, not all disabilities are visible, and not every disability can be recognized by others. This inevitably leads to some people suffering in silence.
It should be a marker of every caring society that the disabled within it feel included, regardless of what they can or cannot do, regardless of their background or status. Governments should know that even the most vulnerable and severely affected can live fulfilling lives full of dignity.
Every life counts. Poverty should not be the cause of discrimination, isolation, or deterioration. It is up to each of us to ensure that the disabled have their needs met. And to those who are disinclined to help, remember: disability can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. It could benefit you one day.