Executive Summary

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities affirms that all human rights – civil, political, social, economic – extend to persons with disabilities in exactly the same way as to persons without disabilities. It calls for disability to be understood not just as a medical condition, but also as an effect of barriers in the physical and social environment. Since 2006, all ESCWA member States have signed the Convention, and there is a growing commitment in the region to ensure that its provisions are fulfilled. The great interest shown in the 2014 ESCWA report Disability in the Arab Region: An Overview, which was a first attempt to collect and analyze data relating to disability in the Arab countries, was a testament to the growing dynamism of the disability movement in this part of the world. 

The present report carries this momentum forward. It includes more recent data for Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen. For the remaining countries analysed, the data have not been updated since the 2014 report, but have been more thoroughly verified and disaggregated. ESCWA countries have clearly made considerable efforts during recent years to enhance the availability and the quality of disability-related data. Many have adopted the method of measuring disability recommended by the Washington Group on Disability Statistics, which assesses a person’s difficulty performing basic universal activities (seeing, hearing, mobility, cognition, self-care and communication). Nevertheless, some limitations remain and reduce the comparability of the data.

Disability prevalence rates in the region range from 0.2 per cent in Qatar to 5.1 per cent in Morocco. These rates appear quite low compared to those in other regions. Aside from methodological issues related to data collection, this may in part result from the fact that the Arab populations are relatively young and therefore less likely to have disabilities. In some countries, the low prevalence rates can also be explained by the presence of large populations of migrant workers. An ageing population structure as well as ongoing conflicts in the region will in all probability push the regional prevalence rate upwards in the coming years. The data show that women are in the minority among younger persons with disabilities, but in the majority among older persons with disabilities. This may in part be due to the so-called health-survival paradox, which suggests that women live longer yet experience more health problems than men.

Disabilities related to mobility are the most prevalent disability type in all countries and disabilities related to seeing the second most prevalent type in most of them. Illness is the most commonly reported cause of disability in all countries except Oman. Ageing is a more frequent cause of disability among women than among men, whereas the opposite applies for accidents. Overall, persons with disabilities are more likely than persons without disabilities to be married, widowed or divorced. This is largely due to the higher average age among persons with disabilities. When the comparison is limited to a specific age-group, it shows a much higher rate of singlehood for persons – especially women – with disabilities than for persons without disabilities.

The rate of literacy is considerably lower for persons with disabilities than for persons without disabilities. They also have lower rates of educational attainment, especially with regard to secondary and tertiary education. This may be due in part to the higher average age among persons with disabilities, since older persons are in general less likely to have benefited from education. However, the data reveal that even today school attendance rates for children and youth with disabilities remain much lower than those of their peers without disabilities. Gender and location, in addition to disability, also have a significant impact. Almost without exception, girls and women with disabilities in rural areas have the lowest rates of literacy, educational attainment and school attendance.

Persons with disabilities’ rate of employment is very low and their rates of economic inactivity and unemployment are high. Being female and having a disability is a double disadvantage, since women in the Arab region are less likely to work overall. In Morocco, for instance, the employment rates for women with and without disabilities are 6.7 per cent and 15.9 per cent respectively.  In Iraq, the rates for men with and without disabilities are 32.8 and 63.0 per cent.  Women with disabilities have the highest rates of unemployment, though the difference between them and women without disabilities is narrower than the difference between men with and without disabilities. In Egypt, for instance, the respective unemployment rates for women with and without disabilities are 90.5 and 75.8 per cent, while those for men with and without disabilities 57.4 and 27.0 per cent.

To complement the data collected by the ESCWA Statistics Division, the analysis also includes findings from surveys carried out in Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Jordan. This additional data pertain to early childhood nutrition, health care and access to water and electricity. In so far as statistically significant differences can be observed, it appears that persons with disabilities are disadvantaged in regard to all these issues. 

The report concludes that Arab countries and regional stakeholders, including ESCWA, should continue their work to produce more and better disability data. It suggests that since disability intersects with other dimensions of vulnerability which include, but are not limited to, gender and location, efforts to overcome the marginalization of persons with disabilities should not be undertaken in isolation. Rather, adhering to the spirit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, such measures should be an integrated part of strategies to achieve inclusive development.