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FOCUS March 2009 Volume 55

Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the Asia-Pacific

Saowalak Thongkuay

Almost 60 per cent of the world's 650 million persons with disabilities live in Asia and the Pacific according to the United Nations (UN) estimates.[1] This translates into some four hundred million persons with disabilities in the region who need support in realizing their human rights. But these figures are all estimates at present. Differences in definitions of disability, methods of data collection as well as capacity of data collecting professionals prevent a more definitive accounting of the number of persons with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific, and in the rest of the world.[2] There are also problems in some countries of low priority and exclusion from official statistics of the data on persons with disabilities.

Data from the country profiles collected by the Asia- Pacific Development Center on Disability (APCD)[3] provide an approximated number of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in some of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region:


Country Estimate No. of PWDs
Bangladesh 518,649
Bhutan 21,000
China 60 million
India 15.9 million
Indonesia 6 million
Japan[4] 7 million
Lao PDR 52,200
Mongolia 115,000
Nepal 103,795
Pakistan 1,918,705
The Philippines 942,098
Samoa 2,874
Sri Lanka 274,771
Thailand 1,100,762
Vanuatu 2,749
Viet Nam 4,039,241

Available data reveal wide disparities in the proportion of persons with disabilities in the region, ranging from 0.7 per cent (Cook Islands) to 20 per cent (Australia).[5]

The UN, through the Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (ESCAP), reports that in many cases in developing countries disability is caused by inadequate maternal and childhood nutrition, infection and disease, lack of clean water, accidents, armed conflict, terrorism and antipersonnel landmines. Seventeen per cent of Afghans developed disabilities as a direct result of the armed conflict. In Cambodia, 18 per cent of the persons with disabilities are amputees likely caused by antipersonnel landmines.[6]

In countries that are experiencing fast-paced globalization with the consequent tougher competition and higher level of stress, the number of persons with psychosocial disabilities is on the rise. Conflicts and natural disasters have also contributed to the increase.

Poverty and marginalization characterize the situation of majority of the persons with disabilities in the region. ESCAP considers them to be "among the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized in the society." Living mostly in the rural areas, they have difficulty accessing whatever facilities for them are available because these facilities are usually located in the cities. They generally have limited access to education, employment, housing, transportation, health services and recreation, leading to their economic and social exclusion. The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that the unemployment rate among persons with disabilities is usually double that of the general population and often as high as 80 per cent. They frequently face various barriers such as negative attitudes of employers, lack of accessible facilities, and lack of vocational and technical training.

Women and girls with disabilities in developing countries face triple discrimination due to their status as females, persons with disabilities and their over representation among the poor. They are two to three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse at home or in institutions for persons with disabilities. Few victims ever talk or file a grievance due to lack of confidence and knowledge of where or whom to turn to for help.

Children with disabilities are largely excluded from educational opportunities. It is estimated that for the majority of countries in the region less than 10 per cent of children with disabilities are enrolled in school. The ESCAP Survey in 2004 indicates for example that the school enrolment rate of children with disabilities is 2 per cent in the Philippines and 4 per cent in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Regional response

The UN World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons[7] provided a framework for addressing the disability issue. The World Programme entails "long-term strategies integrated into national policies for socio-economic development, preventive activities that would include development and use of technology for the prevention of disabilities, and legislation eliminating discrimination regarding access to facilities, social security, education and employment."[8] ESCAP followed this up with the first regional decade on the issue, "The Asia Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities, 1993-2002."[9] The Decade was aimed at strengthening the regional support for the implementation of the World Programme in the Asia Pacific region beyond 1992, and to strengthen regional cooperation to resolve issues affecting the achievement of the goals of the World Programme, especially those concerning the full participation and equality of persons with disabilities.

An Agenda for Action adopted to implement the Decade requests all members and associate members to support its national implementation through public awareness activities, appropriate policies and other measures, and the allocation of resources; invites all governments, donor agencies and the private sector to contribute to the trust fund for the Decade to ensure the successful implementation of the Agenda for Action; also invites the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Children's Fund and other concerned United Nations bodies and agencies, in close cooperation with ESCAP, to strengthen their support for the building of national capabilities for effective implementation of the Agenda for Action.

Two regional meetings in 1999, held in close collaboration with stakeholders in the disability- related concerns, developed practical guidelines for advancing equal access by persons with disabilities to mainstream development opportunities on the following areas: 1) education and technology for the specific needs of children and youth with disabilities; and 2) implementation of the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities and fulfillment of the Decade targets.

ESCAP extended[10] in May 2002 the Decade for another ten years from 2003 to 2012, and started a number of initiatives under the extended Decade. In October 2002, the high-level intergovernmental meeting held in Otsu, Shiga, Japan adopted as guideline for action the "Biwako Millennium Framework for Action towards an Inclusive, Barrier-free and Rights-based Society for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific" (BMF). The BMF promotes a paradigm shift from a charity-based to a rights-based approach to disability. It promotes a barrier-free, inclusive and rights-based society, which embraces the diversity of human beings. Further, it enables and advances the socioeconomic contribution of its members and ensures the realization of those rights by persons with disabilities. It identifies seven priority areas, four major strategic areas, with twenty-one targets and seventeen strategies.

The BMF has five key strategies:

  1. Reinforcing a rights-based approach to disability issues;
  2. Promoting an enabling environment and strengthening effective mechanisms for policy formulation and implementation;
  3. Improving the availability and quality of data and other information on disabilities for policy formulation and implementation;
  4. Promoting disability-inclusive development;
  5. Strengthening comprehensive community- based approaches to disability issues for the prevention of the causes of disability and for the rehabilitation and empowerment of persons with disabilities.

One of the most significant developments during the first five years of the extended Decade was the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD) and its Optional Protocol.[11] This marked the beginning of a new era in the global efforts to promote and safeguard the civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights of persons with disabilities, and to promote disability-inclusive development and international cooperation. In Asia- Pacific, fourteen countries as of March 2009[12] have ratified the CRPD (Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, China, India, Jordan, New Zealand, Oman, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkmenistan and Vanuatu).

Implementing the BMF

The midterm review of the implementation of the BMF reveals some major developments:[13]

  1. Institutional arrangements on disability ? at least twenty-seven governments reported having national mechanisms on disability. Twenty governments reported that their national coordination mechanisms had representatives from more than one ministry and disabled people's organizations. But some governments still lack the financial and human resources as well as the technical capacity to engage in policy development and implementation using these mechanisms.
  2. Disability provisions in the legal system - the Constitutions in at least twenty governments have disability provisions that are either of the two major types: (a) the obligation of the State to provide welfare, prevention and rehabilitation programs; and (b) the obligation of equal protection under the law and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. At least fourteen governments have a comprehensive disability law. Comprehensive laws in nine governments cover the seven priority areas of the BMF. Seven governments reported having a disability-specific anti-discrimination law.
  3. National action plan, policies and decision-making processes on disability - At least twenty-one governments have such action plan, with eleven of them having developed it during the last five years. At least thirteen governments have policies to support the development of self-help organizations of persons with disabilities (SHOs). And at least fifteen governments have measures to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in decision-making processes.
  4. Anti-discrimination measures - At least ten governments have anti-discrimination measures to safeguard the rights of women with disabilities. Over the last five years, governments and non- governmental organizations have organized a number of workshops and seminars focusing on the theme of women with disabilities. In at least fifteen governments, the participation and equal representation of women with disabilities has been promoted by either law or SHO policy. In addition, fifteen governments reported that their women's associations included women with disabilities in their membership.
  5. Primary education for persons with disabilities ? a total of eighteen governments reported that children and youth with disabilities form an integral part of their measures to attain Millenium Development Goal 2 on achieving universal primary education. But the report observes that while "the general assessment on the attainment of Millennium Development Goal 2 was positive with most countries in the region having a primary enrolment rate above 80 per cent, the majority of data available indicate lower rates for children and youth with disabilities."
  6. Community-based mechanism - At least thirteen governments have taken measures to provide community-based early intervention services and training programs. Nineteen governments provide services for the early detection of disability in infants and young children.

The review also provides a set of challenges that have to be overcome during the next five years of the BMF implementation. The review states that[14]

Urgent action should be taken to reduce poverty and improve educational and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Similarly, measures to ensure that disabled persons have access to information, in particular, the use of sign language, and access to ICT have to be taken. Disability-specific data collection systems as well as the mainstreaming of the disability perspective into existing censuses, regular labour, education and health surveys, and poverty mapping should be further promoted. Enhanced support for women with disabilities, persons with disabilities in rural and remote areas, deaf-blind persons, persons with intellectual disabilities and persons with psychosocial disabilities is required. Disaster-resilient accessible communities have to be built and disability-inclusive disaster preparedness has to be promoted.

CRPD: Challenges and Opportunities

Most countries in the Asia-Pacific are contemporary societies that have adopted new ideas such as those related to persons with disabilities. But the persistence of traditional thinking that oppose new ideas (such as the rights of persons with disabilities) poses a question on how a Barrier-free Society can be achieved. An inadequately informed general public and an ineffective system of monitoring the implementation of relevant laws on disability reveal an interesting interaction between social attitude and the legal system. This situation leads to persons with disabilities being confined at home and unable to avail of the protection and benefits that the laws are meant to provide. The existence of the CPRD provides challenges and opportunities for the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities among the general public, such as through the following activities:

  1. Public debates[15] ? They can facilitate the understanding on the way language use, attitudes, and people's view of disability impact on how societies handle disability issues, and on the paradigm shift about persons with disabilities.
  2. Cultural representations ? They can properly convey to the society the appropriate messages, images and ideas about persons with disabilities.
  3. Review of disability portrayal in literature ? The encounter of old images of persons with disabilities in literature (novels and other forms) and the contemporary ideas provides the opportunity for reviewing how persons with disabilities want the society to think about them, and how society think about disability issues.
  4. Use of legislative forums ? A greater understanding of disability and the needs of persons with disabilities should be highlighted in policymaking processes and legislative forums to address the gap between international standards and national systems.

Nothing about us without us

The Disabled Peoples' International (DPI) adopted the motto "Nothing about Us without Us" at its founding in 1981. The motto has been particularly effective in capturing a key idea of the struggle for human rights ? self-determination is essential for achieving true equality. This is clearly acknowledged in the 1993 UN Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. Rule 18 says,

States should recognize the rights of persons with disabilities to represent persons with disabilities at national, regional and local levels. States should also recognize the advisory role of organizations of persons with disabilities in decision-making on disability matters.

The ideas of self-determination and human rights developed and fought for by persons with disabilities through their international disability movement and encapsulated in "Nothing about Us without Us" motto are also at the very heart of CRPD. It recognizes that "disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others." (Preamble, CRPD)


The Disabled Peoples Organizations (DPOs) are working hard to mainstream the rights of persons with disabilities and related concerns within existing inter-governmental and regional non-governmental mechanisms in Asia-Pacific. They would like the rights of persons with disabilities to be explicitly stated in policy documents and program guidelines as well as respected at all stages of program implementation (including the stages of engagement, country analysis, strategic planning, monitoring, and evaluation). The direct participation of persons with disabilities and their organizations in the current discussion on human rights in ASEAN through the non-governmental networks (such as the Solidarity for Asian People's Advocacy) is an example of such mainstreaming efforts.

Networking and collaboration among civil society organizations, government agencies, international development agencies, and multilateral and bilateral agencies are key requirements in the implementation of CRPD and other human rights instruments that incorporate the rights of persons with disabilities in their development agenda.

Social mechanisms are crucial in enabling the participation of persons with disabilities in processes that would reduce the gap in implementing CRPD, BMF and other related programs. The persons with disabilities are the most qualified and best-equipped people to support, inform and advocate for their rights. Consequently, when including disability issues in any development plan, the participation of persons with disabilities is vital. Without the participation of the persons with disabilities in the process, especially in the decision-making one, it is unlikely to meet the needs of persons with disabilities. The DPI motto 'Nothing about Us without Us' proves true in many cases.

Saowalak Thongkuay is the Regional Development Officer in the Regional Development Office, Disabled Peoples' International Asia Pacific (DPI/ AP).

For further information, please contact: Regional Development Office, Disabled Peoples' International Asia Pacific (DPI/AP), 29/486 Moo 9, Soi 12, Muang Thong Thani, Bangpood Sub-district, Pakkred District Nonthaburi Province 11120, ph (66-2) 503-4268, fax (66-2) 503-4269, e-mail:;


1. ESCAP Fact Sheet, page 11, available in

2. See Fifth quinquennial review and appraisal of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons, Report of the UN Secretary General to the General Assembly, A/63/183, 28 July 2008.

3. Country Profile,

4. Based on Ryosuke Matsui, "Employment Measures for Persons with Disabilities in Japan," in FOCUS Asia-Pacific, volume 54, page 8.

5. ESCAP, op.cit.

6. See Cambodia country profile,

7. United Nations General Assembly resolution 37/52, 3 December 1982.

8. History of United Nations and Persons with Disabilities - The World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons, UNEnable,


10. ESCAP resolution 58/4 of 22 May 2002.

11. This optional protocol provides the Committee of Rights of Persons with Disability the authority to accept communications from or on behalf of individuals or groups of individuals subject to its jurisdiction who claim to be victims of a violation by that State Party of the provisions of the Convention.

12. UN Treaty Collection, src=TREATY&id=1&chapter=4&lang=en

13. Review of Progress Made and Challenges Faced in the Implementation of the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action Towards an Inclusive, Barrier-Free and Rights- Based Society for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific, 2003-2012, High-level Intergovernmental Meeting on the Midpoint Review of the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, 2003-2012, Report of ESCAP to the ECOSOC (E/ESCAP/APDDP(2)/1, 22 August 2007).

14. Ibid., page 20.

15. Based on Antika Sawadsri, "Toward access legislations in practice: Experience from field work study," School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, University of Newcastle (United Kingdom), 27 February 2008.