Persons with Disabilities

The 2011 uprisings in several Arab countries highlighted the multiple vulnerabilities of Arab societies. Hidden dimensions of poverty, marginalization, exclusion and discrimination came to light, and called Governments to action. In this context, the vulnerability and marginalization of persons with disabilities gained attention, with Governments pledging to better include persons with disabilities in the development process.

This increased commitment is reinforced by the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs. The aspiration to leave no one behind explicitly includes persons with disabilities, who are mentioned three times in the 2030 Agenda’s Declaration. Furthermore, while all SDGs apply to everyone, persons with disabilities are explicitly referred to in seven of the SDG targets.

SDGs with targets and indicators that directly refer to persons with disabilities

Goal Target Indicator
1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere 1.3 Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable 1.3.1 Proportion of population covered by social protection floors/systems, by sex, distinguishing children, unemployed persons, older persons, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, newborns, work injury victims and the poor and the vulnerable
4 Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all 4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations 4.5.1 Parity indices (female/male, rural/urban, bottom/top wealth quintile and others such as disability status, indigenous peoples and conflict affected, as data become available) for all education indicators on this list that can be disaggregated
  4.a Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all 4.a.1 Proportion of schools with access to: (a) electricity; (b) the Internet for pedagogical purposes; (c) computers for pedagogical purposes; (d) adapted infrastructure and materials for students with disabilities; (e) basic drinking water; (f) single sex basic sanitation facilities; and (g) basic handwashing facilities (as per the WASH indicator definitions)
8 Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all 8.5 By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value 8.5.1 Average hourly earnings of female and male employees, by occupation, age and persons with disabilities8.5.2 Unemployment rate, by sex, age and persons with disabilities
10 Reduce inequality within and among countries 10.2 By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status 10.2.1 Proportion of people living below 50 per cent of median income, by sex, age and persons with disabilities
11 Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable 11.2 By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons 11.2.1 Proportion of population that has convenient access to public transport, by sex, age and persons with disabilities
  11.7 By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities 11.7.1 Average share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use for all, by sex, age and persons with disabilities11.7.2 Proportion of persons victim of physical or sexual harassment, by sex, age, disability status and place of occurrence, in the previous 12 months
16 Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels 16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels 16.7.1 Proportions of positions (by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups) in public institutions (national and local legislatures, public service, and judiciary) compared to national distributions16.7.2 Proportion of population who believe decision making is inclusive and responsive, by sex, age, disability and population group
17 Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development 17.18 By 2020, enhance capacity-building support to developing countries, including for least developed countries and small island developing States, to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts 17.18.1 Proportion of sustainable development indicators produced at the national level with full disaggregation when relevant to the target, in accordance with the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics17.18.2 Number of countries that have national statistical legislation that complies with the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics17.18.3 Number of countries with a national statistical plan that is fully funded and under implementation, by source of funding

SDG target 17.18 calls for the increased availability of reliable data disaggregated by disability. Current data on persons with disabilities are mainly concentrated in general population statistics, presenting the prevalence of disability disaggregated by sex, age, marital status, and urban/rural location. Data on education and employment are more limited, and information on poverty is currently not available in macro-level statistics in Arab countries.

Over the past years, Arab countries have made progress in harmonizing their methodological approaches to disability statistics. Currently, 12 Arab countries apply the Washington Group’s short set of questions in their censuses and household surveys, and five countries are in the process of transition. However, despite increasing harmony in the population data currently available, those statistics still raise questions. Disability prevalence rates in Arab countries range between 0.2 per cent and 5.1 per cent, and are thus far from what is thought to be a realistic reflection of the situation on the ground. Factors contributing to this phenomenon include widespread stigma and discrimination, and different statistical approaches such as some countries including non-national resident populations in their statistics.

The limited data available on the status of persons with disabilities in the major development fields points to significant structural disadvantage and exclusion. Educational attainment among persons with disabilities is considerably lower than among persons without disabilities, particularly in rural areas. In addition, the overwhelming majority of persons with disabilities do not participate in the labour force, although most Governments have introduced an employment quota system for persons with disabilities, at least in the public sector.

ESCWA is currently working on the inclusion of persons with disabilities through several channels. The ESCWA Social Development and Statistics Divisions has launched an initiative to increase the quantity and quality of disability-related statistics. This includes broad and ongoing data collection, currently available in the e-publication entitled “Arab disability statistics in numbers 2017”,[1] which focuses on macro-level data from censuses and surveys. Data collection is accompanied by an extensive statistical capacity-building programme. To gather information on relevant disability-related SDG indicators in the region, ESCWA performs micro-data calculations of data obtained through household surveys, which can shed light on the situation of persons with disabilities in areas such as poverty, social protection and access to transport and buildings.

In view of the widespread conflicts in Arab countries, ESCWA is preparing a study on the impact of conflict on disability through micro-data calculation and quantitative and qualitative studies, in collaboration with other international organizations such as UNHCR and Handicap International. In addition, a forthcoming report entitled “Social protection of persons with disabilities in Arab countries” provides a comprehensive review of current legislation and specific programmes, and summarizes the coverage of persons with disabilities in social insurance, social assistance and basic health care. The report sets out the related challenges and achievements, especially the focused coverage of persons with disabilities in some of the larger cash transfer programmes.

Figure 1.  Some highlights: Access to employment and causes of disability

Some highlights: Access to employment and causes of disability: Arabs with disabilities struggle to access job opportunities: % employed: Men with disabilities 28%, Men without disabilities 65%. Around 60% of disabilities are caused by non-congenital factors: Non congenital causes of disability: Accident ~16%, Disease ~15%, Old age ~12%.


The inclusion of persons with disabilities in the labour market, and their access to media and the virtual world are also prominent concerns (figure 1). ESCWA, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization, the private sector and the International Telecommunication Union, is currently supporting member States in making their labour markets more accessible through improved employment services and support to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace using information technology tools. Modern technology is also a tool for promoting broader advocacy campaigns to confront widespread stigma and public misperception of disability, and to enhance inclusion.

All ESCWA work on disability is closely coordinated and guided by an inter-governmental working group on disability formed in 2016. The group comprises government experts from 17 Arab countries, who are either heads of national disability councils or high-ranking government officials from ministries of social affairs. The group meets at least once a year to discuss issues of common interest, and steers the ESCWA work programme on disability.

Disability is prominent on the social policy agenda of Arab Governments. Progress is still needed towards better inclusion, social justice and equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, but a range of stakeholders, such as Governments, civil society organizations, the private sector and international organizations, are working towards the common goal of no longer leaving them behind.