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A New Standard for Health and Disability

Groundbreaking Classification Focuses on How Everybody Can Live to Their Full Potential

International Photo Contest Finalists Shown

Seventy countries are gathering in Trieste today to outline how they can use a groundbreaking new tool to classify functioning, health and disability so that disability is seen as part of a wider concept of health. By focusing on how people function and what they need to live to their full potential, the classification can help end isolation and stamp out discrimination.

The "World Health Organization Conference on Health and Disability" is a major ministerial meeting, following up last year's launch of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF).

"ICF changes our understanding of health and human functioning," says Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization. "This new measurement tool helps health authorities understand what they should do to ensure that all persons live a full life in their communities."

While traditional health indicators are based on the illness levels and death rates of populations, the ICF shifts the focus to "life", i.e., how people live with their health conditions and how their functioning can be improved to achieve a productive, fulfilling life. It has implications for medical practice, for law and for social policy aiming to improve access to care and full participation ; as well as for the protection of the rights of individuals and groups.

The three-day meeting in Trieste, hosted by the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, convenes Health Ministers and other major policy- and decision-makers from 70 countries; representatives from international and national health institutions; health-related agencies; non-governmental organizations; the private sector; scientists and researchers from various fields.

They will discuss how ICF can be used to help countries in the knowledge and understanding of disabilities and the shaping of public policies and laws.

The Italian government has taken a leading position in promoting the possibilities ICF provides as a tool for new understanding and policy development .

The ICF takes into account the social aspects of disability and provides a mechanism to document the impact of the social and physical environment on a person’s functioning. For instance, when a person in a wheelchair finds it difficult to enter her office building because there are no ramps or elevators, the ICF identifies the needed intervention: it is the building that should be modified, not the person who should adapt. She should not be forced to find an alternative place of work.

International photo contest entries viewed

The WHO photo contest "Images of Health and Disability" received about 1000 black and white, colour and digital entries of which 20 finalists have been selected. (the 20 finalist photos are free for media use and can be downloaded from: Some 200 delegates at the conference will view, rank and name the photos. Winners ― who will be awarded a total of US $15 000 in prize money ― will be announced next week.

As some of the photos illustrate, disabled people are not a minority confined to a wheelchair or marked by a visible impairment. The ICF includes people with any disease or condition that reduces their ability to function normally. Every human being during the life course can experience a decrement in health and some degree of disability; in this sense disability is a universal human experience.

For instance, persons such as Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash suffered from mental illness, and one of the world's leading astrophysicists, Stephen Hawking, is severely physically disabled. ICF provides a framework for comparison that puts all diseases and health conditions on an equal footing.

This approach towards the cause of disability puts mental disorders on a par with physical illness and has led to the recognition of the world-wide burden of depressive disorders: currently the leading cause of healthy life-years lost due to disability.

ICF is the result of a ten-year effort involving the active participation of some 65 countries. Rigorous scientific studies have been undertaken to ensure that ICF is applicable across cultures, age groups and genders so as to collect reliable and comparable data on health outcomes of individuals and populations. WHO is presently carrying out the World Health Survey to collect data using the ICF as a framework to provide a common language.

"Unless we measure health, we cannot manage and improve health systems. The ICF is the ruler with which we will take precise measurements of health and disability," declared Dr Brundtland.

For more information contact:

Mr Jon Lidén
Telephone: +41 (22) 791 3982
Mobile phone: (+41) 79 244 6006