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Disability: Overview


One billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. One-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, encounter significant disabilities. Persons with disabilities on average as a group experience worse socioeconomic outcomes than persons without disabilities, such as less education, worse health outcomes, less employment, and higher poverty rates.

A country’s economic, legislative, physical, and social environment may create or maintain barriers to the participation of people with disabilities in economic, civic, and social life. Barriers include inaccessible buildings, transport, information, and communication technology; inadequate standards, services, and funding for those services; and too little data and analysis for evidence-based, efficient, and effective policies. Poverty may increase the risk of disability through malnutrition, inadequate access to education and health care, unsafe working conditions, polluted environment, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Disability may increase the risk of poverty, through lack of employment, lower wages, and increased cost of living with a disability.

Global awareness of disability is increasing. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) promotes the full integration of persons with disabilities in societies. The CRPD specifically references the importance of international development in addressing the rights of persons with disabilities. To date, 153 countries have signed the CRPD and 112 of these have ratified it, which carries the force of national law. In recent years, an increasing number of bilateral donors have also developed disability policies to guide their international aid.


Disability and poverty are complex, dynamic, and intricately linked phenomena. Therefore, integrating disability into existing World Bank work is a key strategy to address disability issues. Bank development initiatives—including in education, employment, safety nets, transport, infrastructure, health, water and sanitation, post-conflict, and natural disasters—contribute to removing barriers that limit participation of persons with disabilities. Bank projects in Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Jordan, Malawi, Pakistan, Romania, Senegal, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uganda, and Uruguay include disability-related activities.

The lack of physical access to the workplace, schools, clinics, transportation, and buildings poses significant barriers for people with disabilities. Significant improvements in accessibility can be achieved if civil works—both new construction and refurbishment of existing infrastructure—consider persons with disabilities as beneficiaries and stakeholders. The Bank supports this use of “Universal Design” in its projects to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.

In addition to Bank project financing, Bank trust funds contribute to disability and development. The Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development supports disability work in HIV/AIDS, accessible transport and urban infrastructure, and disability assessment; the Japanese Policy and Human Resources Development Fund (PHRD) has financed the mainstreaming disability in Bank projects; and the Multi Donor Trust Fund on Global Partnership for Disability and Development and the Bank have coordinated the Disability & Development Donor Forum, which includes all major bilateral and multilateral development agencies with the objective of fostering international cooperation for the implementation of the CRPD.

The Bank integrates disability into development through its analytical work, data, and good-practice policies. In collaboration with the World Health Organization, the Bank recently published the World Report on Disability. The Bank also produces empirical studies on poverty and disability in developing countries, disability and education, and disability and labor markets (e.g. Disability and Poverty in Developing Countries: A Snapshot from the World Health Survey).


The World Report on Disability, the first ever of its kind, has significantly contributed to the international discourse on disability and development. The report:

  • Analyzes the socio-economic impact of disability based on the best empirical evidence available;
  • Recommends clear, implementable actions to improve the lives of people with disability; and
  • Fills major knowledge gaps, particularly in health, education, and labor.

The report is available in seven languages and disability-accessible formats, and more than 7,700 copies of the full report or summary have been distributed, with Google results up to 68 million. Thirty global/country launches have occurred and at least seven others are underway, with positive attention from government and media.

The $40 million Japanese PHRD fund is supporting projects across the world, including in:

  • Guinea, developing inclusive education;
  • India, expanding work on mental disability issues in Tamil Nadu;
  • Morocco, improving the physical accessibility of people with limited mobility;
  • Peru, mainstreaming inclusive design and university mobility in Lima; and
  • Romania, improving policy-making and the institutional framework for people with disability.

The Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, supported by Finland and Norway, provided grant resources for Bank activities to mainstream disability into environmental, social, and poverty-reducing projects, leveraging more than $780,000 for 14 projects.

Last updated: 2012-04-11

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