The report, released Thursday at the United Nations in New York, found that the problems are worsened by poverty and dozens of other variables, including stigma, architectural barriers, lack of legal protection, the cost of devices and assistance, and the lack of knowledge by others (especially health professionals) about how to interact with disabled people.
“The message is that we cannot continue to discriminate against or ignore the needs of such a large proportion of the world’s population,” said Etienne Krug, the Belgian physician and epidemiologist at WHO who led the study.
The document, 350 pages long, is the first by WHO analyzing data about disability around the world and is WHO’s first major health report to be available in Braille, Krug said. There is also a version for people with mental retardation consisting largely of pictures and captions.
The project took four years and involved 360 researchers around the world, many of them disabled. Together, they sought out and analyzed hundreds of censuses, epidemiological surveys and scientific articles but did not do any primary research of their own.
The problem of disability is likely to get substantially worse unless governments acknowledge it, they say. Two huge trends are contributing to its growth.
One is wealth.
In low- and middle-income countries, 66.5 percent of all years lived with disability are the consequence of “non-communicable diseases,” including heart disease, stroke, mental illness, emphysema and cancer. That number is seven times the percentage of disabilities attributable to infectious diseases — measles, whooping cough, pneumonia, meningitis, AIDS.
But as incomes rise in once-poor countries, and hundreds of millions of people start working in offices, eating hamburgers, smoking, having no unavoidable physical exertion and getting fat, the spectrum of disability includes impairments caused by being overweight, diabetes, arthritis, inactivity, atherosclerosis and chronic lung disease.
The other huge trend is age.
Everywhere, disability is associated with growing older. Disability is especially high in people in their 80s, the “age cohort” growing fastest in the world.
The subject is of interest to the World Bank, which provides loans and grants to many of the world’s poorer countries. It views educational “mainstreaming” laws, curb cuts, wheelchair lifts on buses and prohibitions against discrimination in hiring as relatively easy measures in the effort to make societies fairer and more prosperous.
“Disability impairs the ability of people to function as workers, as mothers and as fathers,” said Tamar Manuelyan Atinc, the World Bank’s vice president for human development.