Violence and Injury Prevention

International paralympic symposium on disability rights

Dr Etienne Krug
Director Injuries and Violence Prevention
World Health Organization
Athens, Greece

17 September 2004

Mr Craven, Your Highness, Mr Ogi, excellencies, distinguished guests,

Fifteen years ago, I worked as a physician during the civil war in Mozambique. Among the more vivid memories I have kept from these years, is the desperate look of a middle aged man with a mental disability chained to a tree in the central space of a remote village. I also remember the empty look of Joao, a young boy who lost the use of his leg due to a dramatic burn injury and feared he would never be able to hunt and work the land as his father… On the other side of the spectrum, I remember the huge smile of a mother of 3 - who had lost her legs in a car crash - when she told me that she was pregnant again. And the excitement of another woman as she returned for the first time from fishing crabs a few weeks after being fitted a prosthesis to replace the leg she had lost in a landmine blast.

These 4 people were facing similar challenges, but the difference between the looks of desperation and those of optimism and hope was made possible by respect, social integration in the community and access to health and rehabilitation services. Services that provided them with the tools to overcome the new challenges they were facing in society.

As we are about to embark upon one of the world's most prominent events where people with disabilities show their tremendous potential and energy, I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on the fact that the athletes we admire here are only a subset of a large population group - the majority of which does not enjoy the same opportunities or even the most basic human rights.

Although data is still scarce, it is estimated that 10% of the world’s population, or some 600 million people, experience a form of physical or mental or intellectual disability, implying difficulties in common daily activities and participation in society.

One in five people living in poverty are affected by a moderate or severe disability. As a group, persons with disabilities are among the poorest and most marginalized of all the world’s people. The lack of equal opportunities for education, employment and social interaction leaves hundreds of millions of persons with disabilities with few resources, little opportunity to make their contribution to society, and little or no say over their current or future lives.

Change is necessary and for this we need a paradigm shift. Persons with disabilities should be recognized as rights-holders in all countries. Human rights are the birthright of every human being. Every person is entitled to lead a life in dignity- free from any form of discrimination. The paralympic athletes are among the most powerful examples of what can be achieved to overcome the challenges of disability when human rights are respected and access to rehabilitation is provided.

Efforts must be made, at every level, to tackle commonly held prejudices, stigma and discrimination against person with disabilities. Special protections or "affirmative action" is permissible- and at times required- to bring about equal protection under the law for persons with disabilities.

As rights-holders, persons with disabilities have the right to participate fully in society and in decision-making processes that affect them. They should be at the forefront in making positive change in society. The actions of all of us must be guided by the principles of equality, inclusion and participation.

WHO has been contributing for more than 2 decades to strengthening programmes for and with persons with disabilities The promotion and protection of human rights and inclusion of people with disabilities are cornerstone principles to the planning and implementation of our programmes. WHO works in close collaboration with organizations of disabled people when setting disability programme directions and developing strategic policies.

WHO supports the process to draft the disability rights convention; such a treaty would recognize disability as a human rights issue of international concern by establishing legally binding human rights obligations specific to the needs and situation of persons with disabilities.

Excellencies, distinguished guests, I am very pleased to report, here in Athens, on important developments that have taken place recently. Last May, WHO's Executive Board adopted a draft Resolution on Disability and Rehabilitation. This Resolution will be tabled in May 2005 at the World Health Assembly, the annual gathering of Ministers of Health. If adopted by the WHA it will become a milestone document laying the ground for a number of activities to be conducted by WHO, Governments and civil society. The Resolution urges Member States to strengthen national programmes; to promote the rights and dignity of people with disability; to promote early intervention; to strengthen community based rehabilitation and to facilitate access to appropriate assistive technology. It also requests WHO to support these efforts and calls for the development of a World report on disability and rehabilitation. This report will be developed with a broad range of partners over the coming years. It has the potential to become a major tool to raise awareness and generate action. Sports will certainly be a significant illustration of what can be done.

WHO views health broadly. Health is not merely about the absence of disease but a complete state of “physical, mental and social well-being". The value of sport in promoting well-being cannot be overestimated. The competitive aspect of sport is also important as it indicates a measure of attainment. Participation of persons with disabilities in the Olympic games adds further evidence of the importance of the combined and coordinated use of health sciences and assistive technology such as prosthesis, orthoses, mobility aids and adaptive sports equipment. All play a crucial role to ensure equal opportunities and to enhance the quality of life.

Much still needs to be done to ensure that every person living with a disability has the opportunity to take active part in sports from the basic to the highest level, irrespective of whether they live in a poor or rich country or come from a privileged or marginalized community. Efforts need to be made to develop accessible infrastructure and transport systems, quality assistive devices and a positive attitude of all to ensure that this happens.

The Paralympics are a fantastic effort in that direction. They constitute a shining example of "Equal Opportunities". WHO applauds this important initiative. We applaud also the athletes who will compete here in Athens in the coming days. Their courage and tremendous energy are an inspiration to all, disabled and not disabled alike.

We thank you for inviting WHO to be with you here today in recognition of the priority attention we must give to the promotion and protection of the human right of persons with disabilities around the world.