More than one billion people worldwide - including almost 100 million children - are living with a physical or mental disability, says a report that marks the first attempt in 50 years to count those with disabilities.
Out of that one billion, almost 200 million suffer "significant difficulties," including 13 million children, says The World Report on Disability, prepared for the World Health Organization.
The report concludes that those with disabilities, largely hidden in plain sight, face a dizzying array of barriers and discrimination in daily life, ranging from children being denied access to education through to denial of health services.
The aging population contributes to the swelling numbers.
"Disability is part of the human condition," said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization. "Almost every one of us will be permanently or temporarily disabled at some point in life."
Although it's a commonplace condition, people with disabilities are often segregated and driven to the margins of society, she said.
The 350-page report was released Thursday in New York.
It shows that the underlying cause of about two-thirds of disabilities is non-communicable disease such as cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer. Another 9 per cent is attributable to conditions resulting from infectious diseases such as measles and polio, and a similar percentage is due to injuries sustained in motor-vehicle crashes, falls and so on.
The authors note that the data are imperfect and incomplete.
Etienne Krug, director of violence and injury prevention and disability at the WHO, said there are significant differences in the rate of disabilities and the integration of people in society in various countries.
Generally speaking, life is far more difficult for the disabled in poorer countries. "The focus of our report is improving the condition of people with disabilities regardless of where they live," Dr. Krug said.
He said it also marks a significant shift in thinking. "We used to think of disability as strictly a health problem, but it's more - it's about being denied opportunities."
Worldwide about 30 per cent of people with disabilities suffer catastrophic health expenses that often relegate them to a life of poverty, the report notes.
The study stresses that few countries have adequate mechanisms in place. Barriers include stigma and discrimination, lack of adequate health care and rehabilitation services; and inaccessible transport, buildings and information and communication technologies.
As a result, people with physical and mental disabilities experience poorer health, lower educational achievements, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities.
Dr. Krug said while the focus of the report is on integration, there are also opportunities for preventing disabilities, particularly in young people. These include vaccination programs, public-health programs that promote road safety, actions like removing old land mines from conflict zones, and prompt treatment of such conditions as leprosy and tuberculosis.
The foreword to the report was written by Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist who suffers from a physically disabling motor-neuron disease.
"We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities," he wrote. "Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education and employment, and never get the chance to shine."
Dr. Hawking added that the findings should help give life to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. More than 150 countries have signed the treaty and 100 countries, including Canada, have ratified it, committing them to removing barriers so that people with disabilities may participate fully in their societies.