WHO world report on disability

The World Health Organization has released the results of their landmark ‘global survey’ on disability. There’s a lot I don’t like about the way WHO discusses disability, but their ability to undertake a study of this scale is perhaps unique, and the resulting data is valuable and interesting.

A summary of the key findings can be found here, but some highlights include:

– There are an estimated 1 billion disabled people worldwide — that’s 15% of the population (an increase from previous estimates of 10%)

– The number of disabled people continues to increase — posited explanations include longer lifespans and more people living with chronic illnesses (both because some illnesses which were once fatal have now become treatable but chronic, and because there is an increase in lifestyle-related chronic illness)

– Disabled people are more than 3 times more likely than their non-disabled peers to report lack of access to needed healthcare

– In ‘developed’ countries, the employment rate for disabled people is 44% (compared to around 75% for non-disabled people)

– Disabled children are significantly more likely to drop out of school than non-disabled children

16 thoughts on “WHO world report on disability

  1. Magicalersatz,
    thanks very much for this post. Like you, I have a number of concerns about how WHO discusses disability; but ,also like you, I recognize the importance of having this kind of data, as well as the fact that WHO is uniquely positioned to gather this sort of information. I’m glad you’ve highlighted the fact that 15% of the population is disabled and that 44% of disabled people are unemployed. Perhaps (employed, non-disabled) philosophers will start to look around their own departments and notice who else is missing.

  2. I followed this story on NPR’s website yesterday, and was a bit thrown by their statement that no such concerted effort to count the numbers of the disabled has been made since the 1970s. It was a passing observation, but stood out to me. I try not to be despairing at the thought that humanity seems stuck with continually reinventing the wheel. Guess it takes vigilance to keep one’s attention on needs and numbers.

  3. Hi Shelley,
    The employment numbers are particularly striking. And just to clarify — I phrased it poorly in the post — 44% is the *employment* rate; so worldwide, 66% of disabled people are unemployed.

    That makes me even sadder about the general lack of disabled people in academia, given that academia is in so many ways a fantastic environment for many types of disability: flexible working hours, flexible working arrangements (you don’t always have to be at your desk, at your workstation, or on your feet), light physical requirements (at least for most disciplines — a geologist friend spends a good portion of his time in the arctic breaking rocks with a sledgehammer, so there are definite exceptions). Academia should be full of disabled people. But it isn’t.

  4. Magicalersatz said:

    The employment numbers are particularly striking. And just to clarify — I phrased it poorly in the post — 44% is the *employment* rate; so worldwide, 66% of disabled people are unemployed.

    This is actually more in line with what I know anecdotally and from information presented on various disability research lists; but, re-reading my own comment and the original post, I think the latter was in fact pretty clear.

  5. Magicalersatz: I think this piece of data (some of which you highlight in the post) is especially worth noting:

    “Global data show that employment rates are lower for disabled men (53%) and disabled women (20%) than for non-disabled men (65%) and non-disabled women (30%). In OECD countries, the employment rate of people with disabilities (44%) was slightly over half that for people without disabilities (75%).“

    Compare the employment rate of non-disabled men (65%) to the employment rate for disabled women (20%).

  6. Thanks for this information.

    Shelley and Magicalersatz: I’d be interested to hear more about your respective concerns with the WHO’s terms of discussion. Looking at the report, it seemed a little odd to me that disability was (partly) defined as a ‘health condition’.

    But I don’t work in this area, and confess considerable ignorance – so would be interested to hear what you find objectionable amidst the important information they are providing here (if that isn’t too off track from the post!).

  7. Hi Stoat,

    Personally, my biggest frustration with the way WHO discusses disability is that it seems to construe disability entirely as an obstacle to be overcome. Don’t get me wrong — there are certainly challenges and difficulties associated with being disabled, many of them due to the way society is structured and some of them (I’m willing to argue) just due to what it’s like to be disabled. But the take-home message of the Disability Pride movement is that disability is a valuable aspect of human diversity. There are benefits and rewards unique to the disabled experience, and those (and the disabled experience itself) are something to celebrated.

    It’s disheartening when discussions of disability focus just on the negatives (with the occasional “tragic overcomer” narrative thrown in for good measure). When coupled with a focus on prevention and cure — as in the WHO discussion — there’s always a worry that the underlying theme is that disability is something that, in ideal society, we would’ve gotten rid of.

    WHO does a lot to promote the issue of disability rights. And it’s a really good thing that they do so. But they tend to approach the issue from a “disability rights as compensatory rights” perspective (to use Anita Silvers’ phrase). Those poor disabled people: they have some condition that makes them less-than-normal. It’s now the duty of the government to compensate for their less-than-normalcy, to give them access to the resources, assistance, whatever, that gets them as close to normal as possible.

    And that might be the best way, from a practical perspective, to approach governments when you’re trying to get them to do something about disability rights. But it can be frustrating for disabled people who think there’s something wrong with the very idea of “normal functioning”, and who would rather focus on living the best disabled lives they can (lives that are different, but still really good) instead of expending all their effort making their lives look as much like the lives of “normal people” as they can.

    Um, so that was long and rambling. I hope some of it made sense. I’m interested to hear Shelley’s thoughts.

  8. It’s useful to make the link between education and employment, here.

    I think I’m right in saying (though I don’t have the figures to hand, and I’m also thinking only of the UK context) (and recognising the real problems with this form of categorisation) that lack of education has a proportionately much greater impact on disabled people’s rate of employment than on the rate of employment of non-disabled people.

    In other words, education makes a *bigger* difference to disabled people’s chances of getting a job, other things being equal. Yet in one large UK research university I’m familiar with, only about 5% of the students are disabled. Even if we assume all the students start at 18 (which isn’t true) that’s a significant underrepresentation – about 9% of people aged 16-24 are estimated to be disabled. That’s about 1000 students “missing”. At one university. In one country. That’s a serious waste of human talent…

  9. I will probably write more about this later, but for now I wanted to point out that if the rate of employment of disabled people globally is 44%, then the rate of unemployment is 56%, not 66%. I think Heg has drawn attention to something that is crucial if there is to be any consideration of a “pipeline problem” (as it were) with respect to the under-representation of disabled people in philosophy. I know that every semester I have a few learning disabled students in my philosophy classes, but I have seldom had a student who is disabled in some other way.

  10. Hi Magicalertatz,
    Thanks for your comments – the concern sounds similar to the one expressed by Elizabeth Anderson (‘What is the Point of Equality?’) about the contempt and pity that is expressed by some of the luck egalitarian views she discusses, that she thinks see (e.g.) disabilities to be compensated for. Is that right?
    I guess your remark was not simply that such an approach sees being disabled as a negative to be overcome, but wholly fails to recognise any valuable aspects to the experience of disability, so also goes beyond Anderson’s concerns.
    I don’t know Anita Silvers work on this – thanks for the mention, I’ll follow that up. Any particular paper recommendations most welcome!

  11. Hi Stoat,

    Yeah, that’s the idea. Anita Silvers has a lot of good stuff on disability, but the phrase I mention comes from her “People with Disabilities” article in the Oxford Handbook to Practical Ethics. It’s a really nice overview of some key issues.

    And Shelley, thanks for the correction! (In case your worried about my competence in basic math — it was a typo!)

  12. Wow — did I just make a typo explaining a typo? (“You’re”, not “your”.) I’m not even going to bother to correct that. It may be wrong, but at least it’s funny.

  13. I agree with much of what magicalersatz has written. We hold different conceptions of what disability is, but I think it’s not necessary to elaborate on these differences here now because that would probably be a diversion from the discussion of the under-representation of disabled people in philosophy. Readers familiar with the work I’ve published in Hypatia and elsewhere will likely have a sense of these conceptual disagreements anyway. I’m going to word my response in a way that circumvents such disagreements.

    I agree that the World Health Organization tends to construe disabled people’s circumstances in terms of individual personal tragedy to be overcome. Given its history, it personnel, and the projects in which it has been engaged, the WHO is wedded to a medicalized conception of disability, despite the fact that over the last two decades especially, the WHO has faced very vocal opposition from disability researchers and activists, and despite the fact that (largely because of this activism) the WHO has made some substantial changes to its initial work to “count” disabled people (its International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps- ICIDH). As magicalersatz says, at bottom, the WHO relies upon a notion of “normal functioning,” to which disabled people, no matter how they are dressed up, are seen not to conform.

  14. I think many agencies, and perhaps all, count as unemployed only those seeking work. It seems likely that if the category was expanded to include something like ‘would and could work’, some of the differences between groups would look different. Women being kept home is a familiar idea. One certainly hears anecdotes about families hiding and/or infantilizing disabled people, along with the presumbly somewhat distinct group of those who have facial differences. Are there any general and accurate figures here? So I am wondering if the figures for non-disabled cosmetically ordinary men are much more accurate, thus skewing the comparisons..

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