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WHO Reports Nearly One Billion Living with Disability


According to first ever World report on disability, more than a billion people in the world today live with some form of disability. The report, released earlier this week, was jointly produced by WHO and the World Bank.

Of the more than one billion people living with some form of disability, nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning. This includes Professor Stephen W Hawking who states in the forward, “Disability need not be an obstacle to success. I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a prominent career in astrophysics and a happy family life.”

There are around 785 to 975 million persons 15 years and older living with disability, based on 2010 population estimates (6.9 billion with 1.86 billion under 15 years). Of these the World Health Survey estimates that 110 million people (2.2%) have very significant difficulties in functioning while the Global Burden of Disease estimates 190 million (3.8%) have “severe disability.”

The report found across the world, people with disabilities have poorer health outcomes, lower education achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities.

Hawking also notes, “But I realize that I am very lucky, in many ways. My success in theoretical physics has ensured that I am supported to live a worthwhile life. It is very clear that the majority of people with disabilities in the world have an extremely difficult time with everyday survival, let alone productive employment and personal fulfilment.”

Individuals with disabilities continue to experience barriers in accessing services, including health, education, employment, and transport as well as information. Across the world, these difficulties are exacerbated in less advantaged communities.

The report notes more individuals are likely to be living with disability as the world’s population ages. This older individuals have a higher risk of disability. There is also an increase number of individuals living with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health disorders.

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The significant economic and social costs of disability are difficult to quantify, including direct and indirect costs. Some of the costs are borne by the individuals with disabilities and their families and friends and employers, and some by society.

Individuals with disabilities and their families may need to spend additional money for health care services, assistive devices, costlier transportation options, heating, laundry services, special diets, or personal assistance.

Several recent studies have attempted to estimate the extra cost of disability, but there remains no technical agreement on how to measure and estimate them. In the United Kingdom estimates range from 11% to 69% of income. In Australia the estimated costs –depending on the degree of severity of the disability – are between 29% and 37% of income. In Ireland the estimated cost varied from 20% to 37% of average weekly income, depending on the duration and severity of disability.

Nearly all countries have some type of public programs targeted at persons with disabilities, but in poorer countries these are often restricted to those with the most significant difficulties in functioning.

Public programs for persons with disabilities include health and rehabilitation services, vocational education and training, disability social insurance (contributory) benefits, social assistance (non-contributory) disability benefits in cash, provision of assistive devices, subsidized access to transport, subsidized utilities, various support services including personal assistants and sign language interpreters, together with administrative overheads.

The report notes the cost of all programs is significant, but no estimates of the total cost are available. For OECD countries an average of 1.2% of GDP is spent on contributory and non-contributory disability benefits, covering 6% of the working age population in 2007. The figure reaches 2% of GDP when sickness benefits are included, or almost 2.5 times the spending on unemployment benefits.

The report ends with a concrete set of recommended actions for governments and their partners:

  1. Enable access to all mainstream policies, systems and services
  2. Invest in specific programs and services for people with disabilities
  3. Adopt a national disability strategy and plan of action
  4. Involve people with disabilities
  5. Improve human resource capacity
  6. Provide adequate funding and improve affordability
  7. Increase public awareness and understanding of disability
  8. Improve disability data collection
  9. Strengthen and support research on disability

WHO Report on Disability, 2011