Tom Shakespeare, one of the authors of the World Health Organization's first-ever global disability report, was at U of T recently to launch the report in Toronto. (Photo by Jon Horvatin)

Public Law

Report is collaboration between World Health Organization and World Bank

Disability is a social, political and human rights issue, says Tom Shakespeare, a contributor to the first-ever World Report on Disability.

Shakespeare, a technical officer at the World Health Organization,  was at the University of Toronto recently for the Toronto launch of this World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank report. The WHO, the health agency of the United Nations, focuses on health, rehabilitation and data. However, as Shakespeare noted, disability is far more than just a medical issue.

“It influences every area of life,” he said. To deal with the social, political and human rights factors -- areas outside the WHO mandate -- the organization collaborated with the World Bank.  As a result, the report is, in reality, a “pioneering piece of international law.”

Although there are laws in place around the world --  for example, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act --  their primary focus is on their particular local region, whereas this report is comprehensive and looks at the situation worldwide.   

“I don’t think there is another volume in the world which has so many references, so much high quality academic and other evidence about the lives of people with disabilities worldwide,” said Shakespeare.  “There are much better things which will tell you about disability in Canada, or disability in the United States, or disability in Britain for that matter. But there is nothing that will tell you so much about the global situation.”

According to the report, originally published June 9 2011, there are more than a billion people in the world living with some form of disability and the number is growing due to an aging population, increases in chronic health conditions and other causes, such as traffic accidents and natural disasters. 

The purpose of the World Report on Disability, the first of its kind, is to give the signatory states of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities a comprehensive, global understanding about the lives of people with disabilities, bring awareness about the barriers they face and make recommendations on how these barriers can be overcome. 

“There isn’t anything that will tell you so much about the global situation,” said Shakespeare. “We want to give governments the information they need in order to improve the lives of people with disabilities.”

The report includes data about physical barriers and problems with access to healthcare and education, and the social and psychological barriers faced by people with disabilities.

For example, fifty per cent of disabled people cannot afford healthcare and are more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to find health-care providers' skills inadequate. They are also four times more likely to report being treated badly and are nearly three times more likely to be denied health care.

The report also sets out nine recommendations for moving forward, including the suggestion to do away with separate provisions for disabled people because they are expensive and exclusionary.  Persons with disabilities shoule be able participate equally with others in any activity and service intended for the general public, such as educa¬tion, health, employment, and social services.

“We want people to be in the mainstream alongside non-disabled people,” said Shakespeare. “It’s a much more just, effective way of meeting peoples’ needs.”

David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance and adjunct professor at the Faculty of Law, said the report was both fabulous and daunting.

“At any page you will see a powerful message, an experience people with disabilities here in Canada can identify with and a clear road map towards making things better,” he said.

Stephanie Nixon, an assistant professor of physical therapy and an organizer of the launch event, agreed that the report is relevant to Canadians.

“The beauty of the World Report on Disability is that it frames disability as part of the human condition, as something that is relevant to all of us,” said Nixon. “It then goes on to articulate specific and achievable actions that all sectors, including universities, can take to move toward a more inclusive society.  For instance, recommendation No. 1 for universities states ‘Remove barriers to the recruitment and participation of students and staff with disabilities’.”

For a copy of the World Report on Disability, go to the WHO website.



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