Over one billion people in the world live with a disability. Some of these disabilities are visible, but others are hidden. The United Nations has designated December 3, 2014 as International Day of Persons With Disabilities. This year’s theme is “Break Barriers, Open Doors: For An Inclusive Society And Development For All.”

Disability disproportionately affects the poorest populations of the world, preventing them from accessing education and employment. Disabled persons in developing countries face extraordinary barriers to full participation in society. They lack access to healthcare, legal services, and other basic provisions that could benefit them. Without equal access, their voice cannot be heard. Indeed, there is very little mention of addressing issues of access and equality in the development plans of most nations.

In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly held a High Level Meeting on Development and Disability (HLMDD) that involved heads of state. The theme for this meeting was “The way forward: a disability inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond.” Its goal was to outline strategies to begin to make sure that inclusion was on the agenda for the development of nations.

The HLMDD also looked forward to the time after the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals are:

  • Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

All of these goals are directly related to equality for persons with disabilities, but they did not occur in a vacuum. In 1982, nearly 20 years before the MDGs, the UN outlined three areas to focus on for persons with disabilities. Called the World Programme of Action, the three areas that they hoped to address and improve were prevention, rehabilitation, and equalization of opportunities.


The MDGs specifically address maternal health and the eradication of hunger and poverty. These two areas can be a factor in disabilities that occur as a result of improper fetal nutrition.


Universal primary education is a tool that can help to better identify and remediate learning disabilities and other “invisible” disabilities. Empowering women to seek these opportunities out will also help with rehabilitation efforts.

Equalization of opportunities

Equal opportunity is a main theme in the MDGs, and the World Programme of Action believes that equality and empowerment need to be a crucial part of any plan for development in nations across the world.

The World Programme of Action initiative formally ended in 1992, but the effects of its strategies have shaped the UN’s work in developing countries and informed their policies when designing the MDGs. This year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities theme “Break Barriers, Open Doors” reiterates the UN’s commitment to opening access for all, regardless of ability. This commitment is crucial, as is understanding of the different types of disability.

Visible disabilities are universally recognized and can include:

  • Vision loss
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Para/quadriplegia
  • Loss of limb
  • Down’s syndrome
  • Other disabilities that requires visible ambulatory assistance (wheelchair, crutches, etc)

Invisible disabilities are more complex and often are not recognized or acknowledged in a discussion about disability. These are conditions that are not immediately apparent, but are just as important to recognize on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The list of invisible disabilities can include:

  • Mental disorders
  • ADHD
  • Autism or Asperger’s
  • Hearing loss
  • Dyslexia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Chronic pain

A previously healthy person can develop an invisible disability that is just as serious as a visible one. This can result in a lowered quality of life and fewer opportunities. A person with dyslexia may have difficultly succeeding in school. Someone with chronic pain may have bad days that make steady work impossible. Post-traumatic stress disorder colors every aspect of a person’s interaction with the world. These are only a few examples of how invisible disabilities can hinder a person and hold back a nation.

Support for people with disabilities can be complicated, as their needs can change over time. When someone is first diagnosed with a disability or sustains a disabling injury, their needs will be much different than someone who has been living with a disability for a long time. There are a few general rules for supporting people with disabilities.

Treat disabled persons as you would treat anyone else

Mind your manners and don’t stare, talk condescendingly, or assume that you must help with everything. Many persons with disabilities are extraordinarily capable of everyday tasks and do not need your help, however well-intentioned.

Do not stigmatize disabled persons or their disability

Disability is not something to be ashamed of. It helps to think of the term “differently abled” rather than “disabled.” The first connotes differing strengths, while the second seems more negative and judgmental.

Do not make assumptions regarding ability

This is an especially useful thing to keep in mind with regard to invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities, autism, or Asperger’s. There is a high incidence of giftedness that occurs simultaneously in people with Asperger’s and ADHD. A learning disability does not always equal a lack of ability.

Focus on what disabled people can do, not what they can’t

This comes from a place of acceptance and abundance rather than scarcity. An example of this is Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist who cannot walk, talk, or move. Focusing on only his challenges would deny the world of his exceptional mind.

Stand up for disabled people, and teach your children to do the same

There are bullies who will take any opportunity to demean and devalue people who are different. If you see that happening, say something if it is safe to do so. Teach your children compassion, acceptance, and understanding so that they will do the same.

Be a friend

Be the same friend for a disabled person as you would for a person without disabilities. Invite them out, laugh, cry, and joke around. Know that everyone has good days and bad days and not all are related to the disability. For people who struggle with depression and anxiety especially, stay in their lives, even when they push you away. Love them as they are.

There are many support services for persons with disabilities, their families and friends. Disability.gov is a great place to start for information on disability programs and services in the United States. Disabled People’s International is another organization that provides support and advocacy worldwide.

On December 3, 2014, join the world in celebrating the International Day of Persons With Disabilities. Find out about events happening all around the world, and join in to spread awareness!

Image by Gareth Williams via Flickr


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