The CRPD and ICF Definitions of Disability

ARTICLE 1 of the CRPD states: “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which when interacting with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

A long-term impairment is a personal characteristic that limits an individual’s functional capacity. One example of an impairment would be having paralyzed legs. An impairment such as this might prohibit basic activities such as standing, walking or climbing stairs. 

However, it is environmental barriers that render a person disabled by preventing (or limiting) those with impairments from exercising their rights to participate fully in society.  Inaccessible buildings, roads and transport systems, and the lack of assistive devices, can pose as barriers to participating in education and training, employment, and family and community life, as can negative attitudes, low expectations, and laws and institutions that do not support inclusion. The CRPD approach[1] broadens the role of policy to create inclusive environments where people, regardless of their impairments, can fully participate in society, which is a basic human right.

The CRPD approach to disability is similar to that of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), the WHO framework for measuring health and disability at both individual and population levels. The ICF defines disability as “…an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. It denotes the negative aspects of the interaction between an individual (with a health condition) and that individual’s contextual factors (environmental and personal factors).”[2]  The ICF is not a measurement tool, but rather a guide to develop statistics and indicators in a way consistent with the CRPD approach.

Disability complexities have resulted in a proliferation of statistics, including, among others, for monitoring the CRPD or determining the need for services. With each purpose eliciting a different statistic, they are neither comparable nor easy to interpret. Even when the same concept is being measured, the actual questions used to gain information often differ in ways that severely limit comparability.

The conclusion, therefore, is not that some estimates are necessarily right or wrong, but that they are measuring different concepts. Furthermore, for measurement purposes, it is necessary to develop a clear definition of disability that can be operationalized for use in surveys and censuses (Box 3).

Box3. Capturing data on persons with and without disabilities

There is a difference between defining the number of persons with disabilities for statistical purposes, such as disaggregating the SDGs or monitoring CRPD outcomes, and determining eligibility for a particular government programme. Not all people with disabilities will qualify for every type of programme and, moreover, programs are not the same in every country.   Therefore, it is important to capture the number of people with disabilities and compare them to those with no disabilities in order to address the issue of social participation and equal rights from a policy perspective as illustrated by the CRPD and the requirements established in the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

[1] Old approaches, such as the medical model or charity model approaches, tend to focus policy solely on the individual — “fixing” their condition or supplying them with a safety net.

[2] WHO (2001). International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Geneva.