International Year of Disabled Persons: Seeking Self-Reliance

By Gutestam, Monica | UN Chronicle, June 1991 | Go to article overview

International Year of Disabled Persons: Seeking Self-Reliance


Gutestam, Monica, UN Chronicle


Walking up a flight of stairs to a classroom, getting into the tub for a morning bath, running to catch a cab on a crowded city street at rush hour, reading a book, watching television, listening to the radio, coping with job and family stress--these are ordinary, everyday experiences for most people. But for many of the 500 million disabled people in the world, they can be painful, if not impossible, tasks.

One of the main goals in life is to become self-reliant, to experience the deep satisfaction of being able to take care of ourselves. That satisfaction is being denied to many disabled people everywhere, as a consequence of mental, physical or sensory impairment.

With a little help, many of these people could become self-functioning, requiring little or no assistance from institutions or charity. Aiming at a world where disability does not automatically condemn a person to life-long dependency, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the year 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons.

The theme for the Year was "Full Participation and Equality". Persons with disabilities, it was stated, have the right to take part fully in the life and development of their societies; enjoy living conditions equal to those of other citizens; and have an equal share in improved conditions resulting from socio-economic development.

The goal of the Year was to translate into practice the central idea contained in the Assembly's 1975 landmark Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons--that these persons have the same political rights as any other human being.

A major outcome of the Year was the elaboration of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons. The Programme, adopted by the Assembly in 1982, is the main UN policy document on disability.

It contains a global strategy to prevent disability, enhance rehabilitation and provide for the full participation of persons with disabilities in social life and development.

"Equality and participation" is the guiding principle of the Programme, which stresses the importance of treating issues concerning disabled persons not in isolation, but within the context of the services that are offered to the entire population.

Because the Programme's recommendations could not be implemented overnight, the Assembly proclaimed the period 1983-1992 as the UN Decade of Disabled Persons, thus setting an initial time-frame for Governments and organizations to implement recommended actions.

Looking back, there have been both achievements and disappointments during the Decade. In some countries where both will and commitment have been strong, Governments, service agencies and other organizations have worked with the disabled community to institute changes. But little progress has been made in other countries where assistance to the disabled is either limited or virtually non-existent due to the general poverty of the population at large.

Evaluating the Decade, Henryk Sokalski, who heads the Social Development Division of the UN Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs (CSDHA) in Vienna, stated that the biggest problem has been to sustain the momentum of the Year into the Decade. After the Year, the UN could provide no additional resources for the Decade. It has been an uphill battle to sustain the constant high-powered worldwide publicity and promotion of activities needed, he said.

Despite these difficulties, there have been some definite achievements. The Decade has managed to make the public aware of the existence of a very large disabled population, and help change the traditional perception of disabled people as "handicapped".

A "handicap" is not something people are born with or acquire by accident or disease, but a product of the relationship between disabled persons and their environment, the World Programme states. It occurs when the disabled face cultural, physical or social barriers, which prevent them from functioning in society like any other citizen. …

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