UNITED NATIONS — World leaders are holding their first-ever U.N. meeting Monday to explore how the more than 1 billion disabled people in countries rich and poor can contribute to the global economy instead of being a drain on society.
The World Health Organization says a huge increase in hearing aids, glasses and wheelchairs could improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people — and help them participate in the development of their countries. But the disabled have other hurdles to overcome, including discrimination and stigmas.
The high-level General Assembly meeting on disabilities Monday is the prelude to the annual U.N. gathering of presidents, prime ministers and monarchs, which starts Tuesday. It is expected to be dominated by Russian-U.S. efforts to rid Syria of chemical weapons and hold a new peace conference to end the 2 ½-year Syrian conflict, and a possible first meeting between American and Iranian leaders since the Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran nearly 35 years ago.
For the disabled, who represent about 15 percent of the world's population, Monday's meeting is a milestone. Speakers will include U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Stevie Wonder.
"We are excited about what's going to happen," said Daniela Bas, director of the U.N. Division for Social Policy and Development, who has been a paraplegic since the age of six. "It is the first meeting of this kind in the whole history of the United Nations."
"This is a group of the society that has been considered for too long a vulnerable group of the society in need of help, while on the contrary this is ... a resourceful group of the society that can contribute in an enormous way to development," she said.
Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, executive director of WHO's office at the U.N., said people with disabilities are twice as likely to find health services inadequate, and three times as likely to be denied adequate health care.
According to WHO, 360 million people worldwide have moderate to profound hearing loss but only 10 percent have access to hearing aids. Some 200 million people need glasses or low vision devices but have no access to them, and only between 5 to 15 percent of the 70 million people who need wheelchairs have access to one.
Kumaresan said these barriers are avoidable and can be overcome.
Mongolia, for example, has introduced disability friendly health centers, and East Timor and the Solomon Islands are providing wheelchairs to those in need, he said. The Philippines Health Insurance Corporation added rehabilitation to its coverage last year which enabled a 25-year-old construction worker who lost a leg in an accident to get a prosthesis and return to work.
"This is what we mean by what the governments can do to help not an individual but an entire society to be productive," Kumaresan said.
He added that public-private partnerships could also help to reduce the cost of wheelchairs, hearing aids, glasses and other devices.
In its main report earlier this year, the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said children with disabilities and their communities would both benefit if society focused on what these youngsters can achieve — not on what they can't do.
A report issued Monday by the child rights organization Plan International in collaboration with the University of Toronto found that children with disabilities in West Africa face widespread poverty, discrimination, violence, and exclusion, including from education.
The report, based on research in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Niger and Togo, said disabled girls, especially, are highly vulnerable to neglect and abuse.
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