Under the charter principles of the dignity and worth of the human being and the promotion of social justice, the General Assembly has acted to protect the rights of disabled persons. In 1971, it adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons, and in 1975, the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (see the section on Other Declarations in the chapter on Human Rights). In 1976, the General Assembly decided to proclaim 1981 as International Year of Disabled Persons, and it called for a plan of action for the year at the national, regional, and international levels.
The year's purpose, and its theme, was the promotion of "full participation and equality," defined as the right of disabled persons to take part fully in the life and development of their societies, to enjoy living conditions equal to those of other citizens, and to have an equal share in improved conditions resulting from socioeconomic development. Other objectives of the year included increasing public understanding of disability and encouraging disabled persons to organize themselves to express their views effectively.
During the year, national committees were set up in more than 140 countries to map out plans of action to implement the objectives of the year. Regional seminars—for Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Latin America, Western Asia, and Europe—held during the year discussed regional cooperation on behalf of disabled persons. At the international level, organizations of the UN system and other intergovernmental organizations, as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), discussed ways in which the world community could aid the disabled through technical cooperation and other means.
The year's activities were followed by the General Assembly's adoption, in 1982, of a World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons, aimed at continuing long-term programs at the national, regional, and international levels. To provide the necessary time frame for implementation of the program, the General Assembly proclaimed the period 1983–92 as the UN Decade of Disabled Persons.
The World Program of Action has proved to be a valuable guide for improving the social, economic, and physical conditions of disabled persons by defining disability issues in the context of human rights and recommending measures aimed at equalizing opportunities for the full participation of disabled persons in society. The program has offered a new approach on disability, representing a step forward in social thinking on such aspects as prevention of disabilities, rehabilitation, equalization of opportunities, and participation of disabled persons in all aspects of life.
During the first five years of the Decade of Disabled Persons, 1983–87, there was a significant growth in the number of organizations of disabled persons throughout the world, which were able to articulate and identify their needs. Governments, NGOs, and regional bodies reported an increased awareness by disabled persons of their rights. There was also an increase in research and exchange of information on the prevention of disabilities and the rehabilitation of the disabled, on the mobility of the disabled, and on their participation in leisure and sports activities.
At the same time, obstacles impeding the implementation of the World Program of Action were identified, including the demographic increase in the number of disabled persons worldwide because of poverty, malnutrition, wars, civil unrest, and deteriorating social and economic conditions in many countries. Because of these obstacles, the General Assembly drew up a set of priority activities to ensure the effective implementation of the program of action during the remaining half of the decade.
Although several specialized agencies in the UN system had prepared guidelines and manuals on key disability issues, those guidelines were not incorporated into national programs in the majority of countries. In order to make the World Program of Action more operational, the General Assembly called for a long-term strategy setting out standard rules on the equalization of opportunities for disabled persons. In 1990 ECOSOC passed Resolution 1990/26 authorizing the Commission for Social Development to establish a working group to create a set of standard rules for submission to the General Assembly in 1993. This new instrument offered governments clear policy options on how to implement measures for full equalization of opportunities for disabled persons.
In 1992, the last year of the designated decade, Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali reported that the 1981 Year for Disabled Persons was so successful in getting the issue of disability and the concerns of disabled people on national agendas that it had come to be regarded as a milestone in the long struggle of disabled people for equal rights. Four plenary sessions of the General Assembly in October 1992 were devoted to a celebration and evaluation of the progress made during the decade. Prior to then, an International Conference of Ministers Responsible for Disability met in Montreal to seek consensus on a framework for action to continue the momentum generated by the decade.
It was clear that the major achievement of the decade was increased public awareness of disability issues among policy-makers, planners, politicians, service providers, parents, and disabled persons themselves. For example, information on disability issues is now included in censuses and 55 countries now maintain statistical information on disability. In 1960, such information was available in only 15 countries. Several European countries set up computerized information networks to share disability-related information. It was also observed that nongovernmental organizations dedicated to the welfare of disabled people were able to increase their influence and gain the respect of their communities. The Voluntary Fund for the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons had supported 161 projects by the end of 1991, for a total of approximately US $2.9 million. By its resolution 47/88, the General Assembly decided that the fund would continue in the period beyond the Decade as the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Disability, and that its terms of reference would include support for action to achieve the target of a "society for all" by the year 2010. During the 20-month period of 1 January 1998 to 31 August 1999, the fund provided nearly US $1 million in grants to 35 disability-related projects.
However, despite its relative success, by the end of the decade, it was estimated that 300 million people with disabilities lived in developing countries and that only 1% of these had access to basic health, education, and adequate sanitation services.