When the first edition of Disability in the Arab Region: An Overview[1] was released by ESCWA in 2014, it was the only publication that compiled extensive data on persons with disabilities in the Arab countries. It has been used as an important advocacy tool to draw the attention of policymakers to the rights and needs of this population. Yet the exclusion and invisibility of persons with disabilities is a deep-rooted challenge. Despite stronger self-advocacy and growing commitment from governments to safeguard their rights and well-being, persons with disabilities remain one of the most marginalized and underserved groups in society. 

Interventions to address ingrained inequality and to promote meaningful inclusion of persons with disabilities require, inter alia, information on their numbers and characteristics, their achievements and/or lack thereof, as well as their abilities and preferences. While data on demographics have improved in recent years, the relative scarcity of statistics on socioeconomic indicators continues to constitute a serious impediment to the elaboration and implementation of inclusive policies. This demand for a robust evidence base has become even more pressing following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which promises equitable development for everyone, including persons with disabilities.

This second edition of the report presents updated statistics from recent surveys and censuses from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen. While more recent data was not available at the time of publication for Bahrain, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan and the Syrian Arab Republic, the previous data from these countries have for this edition been presented at a higher level of disaggregation, yielding fresh insights.[2]

Data disaggregation is fundamental to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Using only aggregate numbers risks overlooking the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups who are the hardest to reach and the least likely to benefit from general developmental gains, thus perpetuating their exclusion and inequality. Unless data is disaggregated by the markers of disadvantage – such as gender, location, ethnicity and disability status – the situation of those in vulnerable situations and the changes in their status vis-à-vis the general population may not be fully understood. This is especially true when these groups constitute only a small percentage of the overall population, such as in the case of persons with disabilities.  

All the countries listed above have made considerable progress in collecting and disseminating data disaggregated by disability status, not only for basic demographic characteristics but also in key socioeconomic areas such as education and employment, conforming to SDG 17 which calls for using high-quality and timely data for monitoring and accountability. The ESCWA Statistics Division has compiled, verified and harmonized these national data to the extent possible to allow for better comparability.[3] Technical cooperation projects between ESCWA and member States’ National Statistics Offices (NSOs) to improve statistics are ongoing and ESCWA hopes to continue expanding and improving the compilation of high-quality data on indicators in other major areas of human development.  

The data sources on which the majority of the analysis is based were selected and provided by the NSOs. There are some limitations related to the data collection methodology, such as differences in definitions and proper application of the Washington Group approach. In addition, the data coming from surveys may have a wide margin of error since the sampling design might not capture small subpopulations, including persons with disabilities. However, due to the lack of availability of microdata for these surveys at the time of publication, it has not been possible to calculate confidence intervals indicating margin of error. ESCWA will continue working with NSOs to obtain this data so that it can be included in similar future publications.

Given the limitations of data provided by NSOs, a preliminary analysis of microdata from additional national surveys was conducted to better reflect the situation of persons with disabilities in the development process and measure progress on a wider range of SDGs. This auxiliary analysis seeks to explore the quality of life of persons with disabilities in terms of nutrition, health care and access to water and electricity. However, the absence of a disability module in many surveys and the often limited number of observations on disability mean that a comprehensive overview is not feasible. Furthermore, this data has not been processed by the ESCWA Statistics Division and methodological issues may reduce its reliability and comparability with other data presented in this report.[4]

The analysis is divided into two sections. The first one focuses on understanding the prevalence of disability in the region and the basic demographic profiles of persons with disabilities. The second section focuses on persons with disabilities’ socioeconomic situation.

Disability intersects with other social dimensions and reinforces marginalization for certain subgroups. One such dimension, gender, has been identified as a likely aggravating factor and incorporated throughout the report. Another dimension that has been considered is location of habitation, as persons with disabilities in rural areas tend to be poor and vulnerable more often than others. An additional possible factor of vulnerability is age, although the available data have not allowed it to be consistently included.

Due to the data limitations, it is beyond the scope of this analysis to definitively establish causality between disability and certain demographic or socioeconomic attributes such as income poverty. However, the marked correlation between disability and a variety of factors indicating vulnerability – for example, economic inactivity and a low level of educational attainment – makes it possible to discuss the potential existence and dynamics of such causal nexuses.

The role of conflicts and disasters is increasingly recognized as an important aspect in disability studies. Physical threat, damaged infrastructure and reduced access to nutrition and health care pose major risks to persons with disabilities. A deteriorating environment is also a cause of injury, impairment and disability.[5] It is estimated that for every child killed in warfare, three acquire a disability.[6] These precarious circumstances exist not only in the areas where conflicts and disasters strike, but also follow the displaced population when they flee and settle in host communities. The topic is particularly pertinent in the context of ESCWA member States since several have witnessed major conflicts in the past decade. A needs assessment conducted by the Arab Forum for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities indicated that the needs of this at-risk population are often not identified or met.[7]  National surveys and censuses do not include displaced populations and thus an analysis on their situation is not feasible in this publication. This issue will be explored using other sources of data in an upcoming report by ESCWA. 

[1] ESCWA, 2014.

[2] Data from the remaining four ESCWA countries (Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya and the United Arab Emirates) were not available at the time of publication and are therefore not included in the report.

[3] ESCWA, 2018.

[4] See Technical Note for details.

[5] International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2007.

[6] UNESCO, 2010, p. 181.

[7] Arab Forum for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2016.