The Washington Group Definition of Disability

In June 2001, the UN International Seminar on the Measurement of Disability established the WG as a City Group under the auspices of the UN Statistical Commission to:

  • Address the need for population-based measures of disability;
  • Foster international cooperation in health and disability statistics;
  • Produce internationally tested measures to monitor the status of persons with disability;
  • Incorporate disability into national statistical systems.

To meet these objectives, the WG first developed a clear link between the purpose of measurement and the operationalization of indicators of disability.  The equalization of opportunities was agreed upon and selected as the purpose for developing internationally comparable general measures of disability.  The measures enable comparisons in outcomes between persons with and without disabilities in order to ascertain if they had the same participation rates in all aspects of society, including education, employment, health, and civic and family life. This purpose was chosen because:

  1. It was relevant, in terms of being of high importance across countries with respect to policy.
  2. It was feasible, since it is possible to collect the proposed information using a comparable general disability measure that includes a short set of questions suitable for census inclusion.

The WG defines persons with disabilities as those who are at greater risk than the general population in experiencing restrictions in completing specific tasks or activities due to limitations in their basic functioning, such as walking, seeing, hearing, or memory − even if such limitations are ameliorated by the use of assistive devices, a supportive environment or plentiful resources. Such persons may not experience limitations in performing activities such as working or going shopping, because the necessary adaptations have been made at the person or environmental levels. These persons would still, however, be considered to be at greater risk in facing restrictions in undertaking activities and/or participation in society than the general population because of the presence of limitations in their basic functioning, and the absence of the necessary accommodation to them.  

The definition of disability status requires identifying limitations in performing basic activities and functioning that would place a person at greater risk than the general public of restriction and participation in organized activities, including educational attendance or work participation.

Considering the complexity of defining and measuring disability, and, in certain cultures, the sensitivity attached to people identifying as having a disability, it has been recommended that several functional activity domains be defined. Whereby people can respond to questions regarding their difficulty in performing certain activities rather than enquiries that directly address whether they have a particular disability.[1]

[1] Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, Revision 3, (ST/ESA/STAT/SER.M/67/Rev.3), 2015.