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Disabilities affect 140-180 million people in the Americas

PAHO calls for removing barriers to accessibility, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Washington, D.C., 3 December 2012 (PAHO/WHO) - On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) is calling for the removal of barriers that endanger the health and restrict the participation of the estimated 140-180 million people with disabilities in the Americas.




Globally, some 15% of the world’s population—about 1 billion people—live with some type of disability, according to WHO’s 2011 World Report on Disabilities. In the coming years, disability rates are expected to grow as a result of population aging and the rise of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental health problems. 

Studies show that the most common disabilities in the region of the Americas are mobility-related, visual, mental, intellectual, communicational and visceral. The leading reported causes are chronic diseases, age-related decline, accidents of all types, problems related to pregnancy and childbirth, and occupational diseases. 

As a group, people with disabilities tend to have worse health outcomes, poorer academic achievement, lower rates of participation in the economy, and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. 

"Disabilities affect all sectors of society, and we need to formulate policies that recognize and promote the health and well-being of all people as a fundamental human right, irrespective of one’s functional status," said Armando Vásquez, PAHO/WHO regional advisor on disabilities. "We need to create a new culture of respect for difference and diversity, to promote equality of opportunity and a new political and social ethic." 

Major obstacles to improving the health of people with disabilities include a lack of clear policies on disabilities in the health sector; inadequate health services, especially rehabilitation services and the provision of assistive devices; poor coordination of services; and insufficient human resources, which negatively affects the quality, access and suitability of services for this group.

"Unmet needs for rehabilitation can have negative consequences for people with disabilities, leading to general health deterioration, limitations on their participation in activities, restriction of social participation and poorer quality of life," said Vásquez. 

Many countries have begun to adopt measures to improve the lives of people with disabilities. However, a great deal of work remains to be done in such areas as formulating specific policies, programs, and plans in the health sector addressing disabilities, ensuring that health systems are more inclusive and public health programs are accessible to people with disabilities, investing in the development of rehabilitation services and the provision of assistive devices, and improving accessibility by introducing structural modifications into health facilities, using equipment with universal design characteristics, communicating information in appropriate formats, and special human resources training. Also important is the implementation of rehabilitation activities at different levels, particularly at the community level. 

In the Americas, many countries have developed situation analyses and health-sector policies on people with disabilities, providing a framework for national programs and plans on care for people with disabilities in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which took effect in 2008. In addition, subregional cooperation has led to such initiatives as the Andean Policy on Care for People with Disabilities, which provides guidelines to help Andean countries  develop specific programs in this area. 

Other areas of significant progress in the Americas include the development of programs for early detection and treatment of disabilities and the implementation of strategies for community-based rehabilitation. PAHO advisor Vásquez also points to the development in most of the region’s countries of regulations on access (with emphasis on “universal design”). "Curitiba has the most accessible transportation system of any city in Brazil, and people with disabilities can be mobilized through a network of integrated transportation," he said. 

The slogan of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is "Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all." The campaign calls for removing all types of barriers—including in education, employment, health care, transportation, political participation and justice—to promote full access for people with disabilities.

PAHO provides technical cooperation to member countries in the development of health policies, programs and plans that take a comprehensive approach to disabilities. The organization also supports the development of services to provide assistive devices, as well as education and training of human resources for rehabilitation.


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