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Disability: The global picture

One billion people around the world live with some form of disability, making up around 15% of the global population. The vast majority of people with disabilities live in developing countries.

Claude, 15, walking home from school, Muhanga District, Rwanda.

Claude, 15, walking home from school, Muhanga District, Rwanda. | © Jay Clark / Handicap International

One billion people around the world live with some form of disability, making up around 15% of the global population. The vast majority of people with disabilities live in developing countries.

According to the World Report on Disability, the number of people with disabilities is increasing. This is because populations are ageing (older people have a higher risk of disability) and because of the global increase in chronic health conditions associated with disability, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mental illness. Other environmental factors, such as road accidents, natural disasters and conflicts also contribute to the increase in disability.

Despite being “the world's biggest minority”, people with disabilities are often forgotten. They regularly face discrimination and exclusion from water and sanitation, healthcare, education, work, and community life. And even though disabled people are among the poorest and most vulnerable, their needs are often overlooked by governments and by international organisations. Efforts to reduce poverty can only be effective if we include people with disabilities!

Vicious circle of poverty and disability

Disability is both a cause and a consequence of poverty: poor people are more likely to become disabled, and people with disabilities are among the poorest of the poor. This relationship can be seen as a vicious circle, with poverty leading to disability and disability worsening poverty.

The main links between poverty and disability are:

  • Dangerous and unhealthy living conditions, such as inadequate housing, water and sanitation, and unsafe transportation and work conditions.
  • The absence or inaccessibility of medical care or rehabilitation. People with disabilities are confronted with extra costs related to disability such as personal assistance, healthcare or assistive devices. These additional costs increase their risk of being poorer than others.
  • Limited access to education and employment. People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and are generally paid less when they are employed.
  • Social exclusion: People with disabilities often do not have access to public spaces because of physical barriers, and often cannot participate in political decision-making, meaning that their voices are not heard and their needs are overlooked.

Double discrimination

Disability covers a great variety of situations and people with disabilities are not a homogeneous group. There are significant inequalities, and poor people, women, and old people are more likely to experience disability than others.

For example, women and girls with disabilities experience double dis­crimination on account of their gender and their disability, and are also particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse.

School enrolment rates also differ among impairments: children with physical impairments gener­ally fare better than those with intellectual or sensory impairments. Those most excluded from the labour market are often those with mental health issues or learning disabilities. People with more severe impairments often experience greater disadvantage.

Fighting injustice

Handicap International works to ensure that disabled and vulnerable people can lead dignified and independent lives. Find out more about our mission and our areas of action.

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