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Understanding Disability

Equal opportunity for people with disabilities in the United States has commonly built upon the vision and language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There has been a perception of people with disabilities as a minority group with the same needs for protections of rights to equal opportunity as everyone else. A frequent opening line about disability is that "it’s the minority group that you can join at any time and that most everyone will join if they live long enough."

That sentiment about the potential of any one of us acquiring a disability at any time is an important starting point for a new definition of disability developed by the United Nation’s World Health Organization (WHO) and released in 2001 after ten years of deliberation and negotiation. 191 member states voted to approve it and it is beginning to reshape thinking around the world.

The new definition of disability incorporated the familiar notion that anyone might become disabled. The World Health Organization (WHO) "mainstreamed" the experience of disability as an ordinary part of experience for all people. Most importantly, the WHO defines disability as something that occurs outside of the person that is based on the interaction of the person, his or her functional abilities, and the environment. As such, one is more or less disabled based on whether the physical, information, communication, and social and policy environment are accommodating and welcoming of variation in ability. In other words, the experience of disability can be minimized by designing environments to accommodate varying functional abilities and providing individualized solutions when needed, opening the door to a new approach to creating welcoming and accessible services for survivors.

In This Section

In this section, you will find more infomation on the following: