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  • Nearly 15 percent of the world’s population live with a disability
  • Harsh conditions in developing countries: people with disabilities face violence and discrimination
  • Germany: government-funded rehabilitation program aims to strengthen self determination
  • Key message of the World Report on Disability: inclusion especially in schools critical to overcome discrimination

Justin Black suffers from muscular dystrophy, an inherited disease that inexorably withers his muscles until they no longer work at all.

Most of his body has now given up on him, he fights to keep his voice by practicing with a language trainer, he is bound to his wheelchair, and so he needs six personal assistants, working in shifts, 24 hours a day

But despite these enormous impairments, the 26-year old living in Bavaria, Germany, has forged a successful career as a freelance journalist; first as a writer and then, when his fingers stopped working, as a video producer.

“It was a long way to get where I am,” he says, reflecting not so much on his physical struggle, but the struggle for acceptance, the struggle for recognition, the struggle to get financial backing. In short: the struggle against discrimination.

“When I am on the set with my cameraman people get used to me very quickly,” he says. “But on the street it’s different”.

Social barriers are one of the key issues identified by the first World Report on Disability, published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank in June 2011. The report aims at a better understanding of disabilities, no matter whether physical handicaps or mental health issues.

The first thing the report does is to highlight the incredible numbers of people who, like Justin, live with a disability—more than one billion people, nearly 15 percent of the world’s population.

This is five percent higher than the previous estimate dating from the 1970s, largely due to increased life expectancy and corresponding increases in chronic, age-related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases

Staircases and steps can become urban hurdles for disabled people. Barrier-free living, also called universal design, tries to prevent such obstacles. See some of the most interesting examples.
Staircases and steps can become urban hurdles for disabled people. Barrier-free living, also called universal design, tries to prevent such obstacles. See some of the most interesting examples. 

“Disability is part of the human condition,” said WHO director general Margaret Chan at the presentation of the report in New York, regardless of where we live and whether we are rich or poor. “Almost every one of us will be permanently or temporarily disabled at some point in life”.

However, one key message the authors emphasize is that disability is a development issue.  Eighty percent of people with disabilities now live in low-income countries, many barely surviving in very harsh conditions.

For example, in parts of Africa, Indonesia or India the belief in black magic is strong enough to blame mentally handicapped people in particular for diseases like HIV/AIDS or crop failures. Sadly, they may find themselves the victims of witch hunts.

Even in countries without medieval practices, children with disabilities are less likely to attend and complete school, while disabled women are more exposed to discrimination and sexual violence.

In general, people with disabilities are at greater risk of slipping below the poverty line because their health costs often exceed their incomes.

The needs of people with disabilities have been ignored for too long, warns the report. They have to be part of the international agenda and profit from development projects.

“Addressing the health, education, employment and other development needs of people living with disabilities is fundamental to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015,” said the World Bank president, Robert Zoellick at the report’s launch

Of course, disabled people come up against barriers in rich countries too: just ask Justin

“I still think that monument protection is more important in Germany than humans,” he says, angered by the number of inaccessible German buildings. He contrasts his predicament with the United States, where every public building has to have a wheelchair ramp.

Some government legislation does empower disabled people. In 2008, Germany introduced the ‘personal budget’, a government-funded rehabilitation program that comes with a legal right enabling the recipients to decide which kind of help they need and whom to employ.

But by far the biggest challenge for Justin and other disabled people is social equality. He recounts how a fellow passenger on an airplane asked his assistant whether Justin was conscious of his surroundings. He is only too aware of what’s going on around him and why.

“As long as children with disabilities are separated from their peer group in school you never get this degree of acceptance which is so desperately needed”, he explains. “How should they learn how to deal with disabled people, if they don’t learn it from early age?

This is another key message of the World Report on Disability. Tackling discrimination by keeping children with disabilities in school is critical.

Many societies tend to hide disabled children away at home, because they are awkward to manage, the infrastructure and expertise necessary to help them is absent, or they are simply considered embarrassing or shameful.

Scandinavia has taken the lead in making schools more inclusive. In Sweden, for example, special schools are closely linked with regular elementary schools thus enabling disabled children – according to their abilities – to take part in normal lessons together with pupils without disabilities. Countries like Vietnam and Laos are also praised by the report for their efforts.

"Disability need not be an obstacle to success,” writes the English astrophysicist Stephen Hawkings in the foreword of the report.

Justin Black is living proof of this. Were he in full command of his body, his dream job would be a bodyguard. In reality he is strong enough to not only defend himself but also to stand up for disabled people. 

Michael Grimm

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