New Internationalist

Disability in the Majority World the facts

Issue 384

People with disabilities are low on the list of official priorities, especially in the Majority World. There is no accurate data to reflect their lives. International institutions like the United Nations are aiming to change this.

Photo: Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures
The Single Leg Amputee Sports Club practise their moves in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Amputations here are a legacy of war. Photo: Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures

Losing count

• The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10% of any given population will be disabled. • The proportion tends to be lower in the Majority World as poverty and extreme prejudice can be fatal to people with disabilities.

• The vast majority of the world’s population with disabilities – over 75% – lives in the Majority World.1

Infancy and childhood

Paul Lowe / Panos Pictures
The sunshine of your smile: Mother Ntaka and son Vitali, both with disabilities, share some fun in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. Paul Lowe / Panos Pictures

• Death rates for children with disabilities can be as high as 80%, even in countries with low child mortality rates.1

• 98% of children with disabilities do not attend schools. Put another way, 40 million of the 115 million children who do not attend school have disabilities.4

• 500,000 children every year are visually impaired due to vitamin A deficiency.

• 41 million babies are at risk of mental impairment due to lack of iodine in their mothers’ diets.4

The poverty trap

Disabled people are over-represented among poor people. The World Bank estimates that 20% of the world’s poorest are disabled.

• There is a direct link between poverty and disabling impairments. 50% of disabilities are preventable and poverty-related, with 20% of impairments caused by malnutrition.1

Causes of impairment


• There is a direct link between poverty and disabling impairments. 50% of disabilities are preventable and poverty-related, with 20% of impairments caused by malnutrition.1

Disabled people and their families are caught in a downward spiral of poverty, due to lack of support and denial of employment.

• In Kenya, out of 160,000 people with visual impairment, only 2% are employed.3

Women and girls

School attendance rates for girls with disabilities are even lower than those for boys with disabilities.2

• Women with disabilities are two to three times more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than women without disabilities.2

• A survey in India’s Orissa state found 100% of disabled women and girls were beaten at home, 25% of women with intellectual impairments had been raped and 6% of disabled women had been forcibly sterilized.1

• 20 million women a year are disabled as a consequence of pregnancy and childbirth.1 The overwhelming majority are likely be in the Global South, as only 1% of annual maternal deaths are recorded in rich countries.7

• Over 100 million girls and women in Africa have experienced the disabling consequences of female genital mutilation.2

Health gap

When health spending falls short, disability provision suffers.

• More than 80% of the 50 million people affected by epilepsy live in the Majority World. Treatment costs can be as low as $5 per person per year. In Africa more than 80% of people with epilepsy receive no treatment.8

• Concerted efforts can bring big changes. In 1988 the international community committed itself to polio eradication. That year there were 350,000 cases of the disease in the world.2 By 2004, there were only 1,255.9

A distinct lack of care


• Only 2% of people with disabilities in the Majority World have access to basic services and rehabilitation.2

• 80% could have their needs met in the community; only 20% would require specialist attention.2

• 20 million people in the world who need a wheelchair don’t have one.5 Many more have inappropriate or worn-out machines.

• Fewer than 0.1% of deafblind people in the Majority World receive appropriate support.6

All monetary values are expressed in US dollars unless otherwise noted.

  1. Philippa Thomas, Disability, Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals, DFID, June 2005.
  2. DFID, Disability, Poverty and Development, February 2000.
  3. Arne Fritzson and Samuel Kabue, Interpreting Disability, WCC Publications, Geneva, 2004.
  4. UNESCO
  5. Motivation
  6. Sense International
  7. World Health Organization, World Health Report 2005, WHO, 2005.
  8. World Health Organization, World Health Report 2001, WHO, 2001.
  9. UNICEF, Progress for Children, No 3, September 2005.

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