safety alertalert exclamation

If you are in danger, please use a safer computer, call 911 or your local hotline or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233 voice), 1-800-787-3224 (tty). There is always a computer trail, but you can click ESCAPE to leave the site quickly.

home>understanding disability>a new definition>

World Health Organization's Definition of Disability

The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ public health arm, published its new framework for disability and health in 2001 called the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, known as the ICF. WHO has developed international standard language and a framework for the 191 United Nation's member states since 1980. Until 2001, WHO defined disability as where health ended. After ten years of work, the 2001 framework introduced a radical departure from the old assumption that disability applies to a distinct subset of people. WHO’s new definition of disability did the following:

  • Established parity between “mental” and “physical” reasons for disability,
  • Mainstreamed the experience of disability and recognized it as a universal human experience, and
  • Called for the identification of “facilitators” that not only eliminate barriers but enhance experience and performance.

In the United States, the federally-funded National Institute for Disability Research and Rehabilitation (NIDRR), the most significant funder of disability research in our nation, has also participated in this historical evolution.

According to the NIDR Long Range Plan (2005-2009), “the disability paradigm that undergirds NIDRR's research strategy for the future maintains that disability is a product of an interaction between characteristics (e.g., conditions or impairments, functional status, or personal and social qualities) of the individual and characteristics of the natural, built, cultural, and social environments. The construct of disability is located on a continuum from enablement to disablement. Personal characteristics, as well as environmental ones, may be enabling or disabling, and the relative degree fluctuates, depending on condition, time, and setting. Disability is a contextual variable, dynamic over time and circumstance. Environments may be physically accessible or inaccessible, culturally inclusive or exclusive, accommodating or unaccommodating, and supportive or unsupportive.”