Did you know that disabled people are the largest minority population in the world? Disabled people live in every country and are every gender and every race. They subscribe to every religion and hold every political persuasion. Everybody knows somebody who is disabled. If you think you don’t, think again. Not all disabilities are visible.

In 2001, the World Health Organization introduced the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health – a totally new way to understand disability. The ICF changes everything we think we know about disability. It says that disability isn’t actually a problem that a particular individual has to deal with. No. Disability is a condition imposed by the environment.

People think and act very differently from each other and most of the time it’s no big deal. Personalities vary: some people love the outdoors; others prefer to watch TV. Some enjoy punk rock; others like classical.  Some people wear glasses; some are left-handed. No big deal. But sometimes differences can be dangerous: for example, there are countries where gay and trans people can be open about their sexuality and are free to marry, adopt kids and live as they choose while in others, they have to hide their identity for fear of persecution and and even execution.

A minor difference can become a major liability. The same person could be accepted in one place and killed in another. Other examples are less dire, but just as stark a contrast. Consider a wheelhair user in the United States vs one in India. One is able to travel, hold a wide range of jobs, go to the theatre, shop, exercise, visit the library and enjoy the outdoors. The other experiences massive barriers at every turn, starting from the state of most roads and sidewalks and continuing to building without lifts and ramps so steep they are death traps.

Two boys in wheelchairs. One has a chair that is way too big for him and he is sitting slumped over, looking sad. The other is in a custom-made chair and he looks excited and ready for anything.


Two people with the same level of mobility but one is completely disabled and the other can do pretty much anything.

It helps to keep this in mind. This is precisely the way the ICF pushes us to think: the problem is not in the person. The problem is in the barriers that prevent that person from fully participating in the world. Our job is to identify the barriers and remove them.

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