Redefining Disability according to the World Health Organization

One of the valuable opportunities that has arisen only in the last few years is to actually the take international definition of disability as defined by the World Health Organization. Which was changed in a very dramatic way in 2001, and offers us a platform for talking about these issues that is valuable in making a case for universal design.

Disability was redesigned by WHO over a ten-year process. And part of what was put aside was the presumption that disability resides in some individuals. In the redefinition of disability, the WHO redefined disability as a mainstream experience of being human. And all of us, if we live long enough, experience some change in ability, whether permanent or temporary.  And we should be thinking about disability as a contextual experience. Functional limitation is a fact. Disability is a phenomenon of the experience that occurs by the individual intersecting with the environment. And that may be the physical environment, the information environment, the communication environment, or the social and political environments. 

It is a powerful incentive to envision our role as shaping the actual experience of disability. We have the power through design to minimize or exaggerate disabling experiences. That, in my mind, has been a powerful incentive to making the case for universal design. The WHO even invited the definition of facilitators to human experience. And in doing so specifically articulated universal design as the most promising idea for defining facilitators for experience.

Valerie Fletcher
Executive Director, Adaptive Environments, Boston, MA



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