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Disability in the Arab World: From Charity to Agency

What is Disability?

Persons with disabilities include those with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments. These impairments are sometimes visible to others, and other times hidden. Environmental barriers prevent persons with disabilities from performing day-to-day activities and fully participating in society. Accordingly, policy interventions should focus on resolving these barriers to facilitate the participation and integration of persons with disabilities in society.

A missing part of disability in the Arab world

Globally, at least 446 million people – or 6 percent of the world population – are estimated to be living with disability. By contrast, only 2 percent of the Arab population is reported to be living with disability. This data varies significantly for different countries in the region from 0.2 percent and 1 percent in Qatar and Mauritania to 4.8 percent and 5.1 percent in Sudan and Morocco. Overall, the numbers are remarkably low given the widespread occurrence of risk factors and disability causes in the region, including armed conflicts, natural disasters, road traffic accidents, and the high prevalence of noncommunicable diseases and intermarriages. This discrepancy in data reporting on disability is caused by challenges in data collection, the different definitions of disability that each country uses, and other factors such as social stigma that discourages people from reporting disabilities.

It can be any of us..

There are many causes of disability. Some of them are congenital or related to complications in pregnancy or when giving birth. However, a sample of 11 Arab countries for which data is available shows that these factors would represent less than half of the cases of disability. The most common non-congenital factors in the region are accidents (16%), followed by diseases (15%), and old age (12%). Accidents can happen while on the road, at the workplace, or even at home. Diseases include severe infections, noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases (e.g. heart attacks and stroke), cancer, chronic respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma and pulmonary hypertension), etc.

Disability can happen at any time in life and to any of us. While we can adjust our lifestyle to reduce some of the risks, in many cases, it is not under our control to prevent it.  

Figure 1 – Around 60% of disabilities are caused by non congenital factors

Arab governments recognize the rights of persons with disabilities

Significant developments have taken place over recent years with regards to the institutional and legal frameworks that protect the rights of people with disabilities in Arab countries. At the regional level, 15 Arab countries have signed and 19 have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Moreover, seven Arab countries have signed and eight have ratified the Optional Protocol. All of these developments have led governments to devise new laws, strategies, and policies in support of persons with disabilities. 13 countries have established national coordination mechanisms on disability, mainly in the form of national disability councils. On the level of national legal frameworks, 12 Arab countries have included articles on disability in their constitutions. Furthermore, comprehensive disability laws exist in 16 countries of the region with Sudan and Jordan as the most recent countries to adopt and adapt new laws on disability toward more compliance with international standards in 2017.

In addition, 17 Arab countries have instituted employment quotas for persons with disabilities in the public and private sector. Algerian laws, for example, institute that one percent of workers for each employer must be a person with disability. This figure varies to 2 percent in Bahrain, 5 percent in Egypt and Iraq, and 7 percent in Morocco.

However, barriers still exist for persons with disabilities

When looking at the impact of institutional and legal reforms on economic activity and employment rates, the picture suggests that these frameworks have not yet achieved holistic social inclusion of persons with disabilities in society. Persons with disabilities in Arab countries face barriers in finding jobs and accessing education – both are fundamental human rights and are key to enabling equal participation of persons with disabilities in social and economic life. In all countries in the Arab world, persons with disabilities report substantially lower levels of employment than the total population. Overall, population with disabilities in the region are only half as likely to be employed as the rest of the total working-age Arab population. Among men, the difference is even more striking, with 65% of adults employed compared to 28% for males with disabilities. Moreover, education attainments rates tend to be significantly lower for persons with disabilities than for total populations. For example, 58% of persons with disabilities in Egypt are considered illiterate compared to 21% among persons without disabilities.

Figure 2 – Arabs with disabilities struggle to access job opportunities

Let’s promote agency for persons with disabilities

The inclusion of persons with disabilities benefits societies and represents a key component for the success of development objectives, including the Sustainable Development Goals. This begins with inclusive access to healthcare, education, jobs, and public spaces. Including persons with disabilities allows for the promotion of untapped potential and resources that can benefit everyone. Governments and citizens are responsible for ensuring equal access to opportunities across society so families can receive the necessary support and individuals can assume agency and actualize their full potential.



United Nations. 2006. Convention On the Rights of People with Disabilities.

ESCWA. 2014. Disability in the Arab Region: An Overview.

ESCWA. 2017. Strengthening Social Protection of Persons with Disabilities in Arab Countries.

ESCWA. 2017. Arabs Disability Statistics in Numbers 2017.

NCBI. 2013. Disability Statistics: An Integral but missing (and misunderstood) Component of Development Work.

Population Reference Bureau. 2005. Marriage in the Arab world.

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2007. Disabilities: Frequently Asked Questions.

World Bank & World Health Organization. 2011. World Report on Disability.