Empowerment: Persons with Disabilities: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

This section presents definitions for the main concepts related to the notions of persons with disabilities. It also reviews some terminology frequently employed by actors working in this field and the strategies used by stakeholders to address them, namely: discrimination, empowerment (also called self-fulfillment), inclusion (or reasonable accommodation), independence, mainstreaming, protection, and vulnerability. The most concrete challenges attached to the application of these concepts in policies and programs are addressed in the section Key Debates and Implementation Challenges.

Persons with disabilities

The seminal document on persons with disabilities, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, defines persons with disabilities as "those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others."1 The term 'disability' is therefore an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of types and reasons for disabilities.

A related term is that of 'impairment,' which may often be conflated with disability. The United Nations has defined impairment as "Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function."2 This definition highlights two important points. The first is that there exists a distinction between impairments and disabilities. On this basis, a disability may be the result of impairment.3 This also highlights the inherent normative nature of such notions, as establishing impairment requires a judgment of what is 'normal.' Such distinctions become problematic, dividing groups into what may somewhat arbitrarily be designated as impairment.

In conflict and post-conflict zones, a large proportion of persons with disabilities have become so as a result of warfare. Even though the practice is evolving as the issue of disabilities is increasingly being integrated into programs, there is still a great deal of differences in the terminology and categories used to classify different types of disabilities and reasons for disabilities (in particular if they are directly related to war violence or not).4 This has consequences both on the data gathering and the definition of applicable policies and programs, as well as for compensation purposes.

In addition, concepts of 'impairment' and 'disability,' as well as the stigma attached to them, can differ enormously among different cultures and societies. 5

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Situational definitions

Stakeholders working on issues pertaining to people with disability often employ a number of terms to describe conditions faced, and needs which are to be addressed, including the recognition of the role of persons with disabilities in the peacebuilding process.


Discrimination on the basis of disability means any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, and civil or any other field. It includes all forms of discrimination, including denial of reasonable accommodation.6

Empowerment (or self-fulfillment)

Empowerment refers to the opportunity to make informed choices, exercise influence, make continuing contributions to society, and access services. These privileges are often not made accessible to persons with disabilities. Yet empowerment is vital to the exercise of rights by all citizens, as well as to enhancing a more participatory society.   Go to Women and gender Issues - Definitions and conceptual issues and Children and youth- Definitions and conceptual issues

Inclusion and reasonable accommodation

Broadly speaking, social inclusion is a term that is frequently employed, but rarely defined in usage. As such, its precise implications are often vague. For the purposes here, we may generally use inclusion to imply, "the removal of institutional constraints and enhancement of incentives to increase the access of diverse individuals and groups to assets and development opportunities."7

At times this notion is easily confused with the notion of 'reasonable accommodation,' which, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is "necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms..."8

While these terms have significant overlap, they are not synonymous. Reasonable accommodation is a broader term, which may in many circumstances encompass inclusion.9


For persons with disabilities, the notion of independence presents some difficulty given its subjective nature. For the purposes of this writing it infers "the opportunity to have control over one's life and decisions."10For persons with disabilities, independence is also linked to reasonable accommodation, as additional efforts may be needed to modify accommodations to make sure that individuals with disabilities are fully included in the peacebuilding and development process.


Mainstreaming generally may be understood as "The process of engaging in a structured way with an issue as an organisation, at workplace, programme and policy levels, in order to address, and avoid increasing, the negative effects of that issue."11 Specifically for persons with disabilities, mainstreaming has been conceived of as "a method to promote inclusion and to address the barriers that exclude disabled people from full and equal participation in society."12


Some practitioners also employ the notion of protection. For those purposes, it is thought to refer to all actions aimed at ensuring that persons with disabilities have their rights protected. Protection activities aim at preventing or putting a stop to a specific pattern of abuse and/or alleviating its immediate effects; restoring people's dignity and ensuring adequate living conditions through reparation, restitution, and rehabilitation; fostering an environment conducive to respect for the rights of individuals in accordance with the relevant bodies of law. "Protection activities may include responsive action, remedial action and environment-building and may be carried out concurrently."13


Some actors also use of the word vulnerability. This concept is highly contentious, and brings up debate as to its value, and the biased lens it may cast on persons with disabilities. For those who do use this term, vulnerability generally refers to a substantial incapacity to protect ones own interests owing to such impediments as a lack of available resources, access to services, or subordinate position in the group. As a consequence, individuals and groups often find it difficult to advocate for, or provide for all of their needs themselves, and must rely on others for at least some support services.14 Then, they are at higher risk than the majority of the population, with a higher probability of negative outcome, loss, discrimination, violation of their rights and welfare. Practitioners have documented that people with disabilities are generally among the most vulnerable groups in conflict and post-conflict situations.15

1.UNESCAP, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, The Protection of Older Persons and Persons with Disabilities, Report prepared for the High-level Meeting on the Regional Review of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (Macao, China: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2007).
2. United Nations. World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled People. (New York: United Nations, 1983).
3. Ibid.
4. Womens Commission for Refugee Women and Children, Disabilities Among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations: Resource Kit for Fieldworkers (New York: International Rescue Committee, 2008), 3.
5. Ibid.
6. UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, A/RES/61/106, Annex 1, 2006.
7. World Bank, "Glossary of Key Terms in Social Analysis."
8. UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, A/RES/61/106, Annex 1, 2006.
9. Communication with Tirza Leibowitz and Nerina Cevra, Survivor Corps (8 December 2008).
10. Ibid.
11. Daniel Jones and Li Webster. A Handbook on Mainstreaming Disability. (London: Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), 2006) 8.
12. Ibid.
13. ICRC, Workshop on the Development of Human Rights Training for Humanitarian Actors (International Council of Voluntary Agencies, 2001).
14. SCAN, Service Community Assessment of Needs, (Indiana: SCAN Steering Committee, 2003), 47.
15. For example, see Maria Kett, Sue Stubbs, and Rebecca Yeo. Disability in conflict and emergency situations: focus on tsunami-affected areas. (IDDC Research Report, 2005).

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