International Day of Persons with Disabilities: How Local Health Departments Can Promote Inclusion

By Meredith Williams, Health and Disability Fellow, NACCHO

IDPD logo imageOn December 3, 2015, the global community commemorated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). This year’s theme was “Inclusion Matters: Access and Empowerment for People of All Abilities.”1 NACCHO’s Health and Disability Project Team joins the President of the United States, the United Nations (UN), and organizations worldwide in affirming the rights of people with disabilities to lead healthy and active lives and to fully and equally participate in society. Local health departments (LHDs) can embrace the IDPD 2015 theme and play a fundamental role in global efforts by identifying and addressing health inequities experienced by people with disabilities, increasing the inclusion of people with disabilities in LHD activities, and empowering people with disabilities to fully participate in public health efforts. NACCHO’s Health and Disability team offers LHDs support and guidance to do just that.

People with Disabilities Face Serious Health Inequities

Around the world and here in the US, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by public health issues, emergencies, and natural disasters. Compared to the general population, people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, smoke, receive poor quality health care services, be denied health care services, be undereducated and unemployed, and experience violence and abuse. People with disabilities are also more likely to develop secondary and comorbid conditions, obesity, stress and depression, and HIV infections.2,3,4

Disability has been defined by the World Health Organization as an impairment, activity limitation, or participation restriction resulting from the interaction of a person’s medical condition and a person’s environment.5 Disability can involve difficulties with hearing, seeing, moving, communicating, and thinking or learning, and can be visible or invisible. Examples of invisible disabilities are mental and psychosocial disabilities, chronic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, and hearing disabilities. It is important to note that the experience of disability can be created or worsened by a person’s environment, because of physical barriers which reduce accessibility, information and communication barriers. This is especially important for LHDs to note during emergency responses.

Nearly 20% of the US population has a disability—a percentage that is expected to rise as the population ages.6 However, disability is a nearly universal experience. As WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan remarked on IDPD 2014, “we must remind ourselves that disability is part of the human condition: all of us either are or will become disabled to one degree or another during the course of our lives.”7

How Local Health Departments Can Help

LHDs play a pivotal role in global and national efforts to include and empower people with disabilities. Many LHDs have already become leaders in their communities. To include and engage people with disabilities in LHD activities, LHDs can use the same frameworks and practices they use for other populations that experience major health disparities and inequities.

LHDs can contribute to global efforts by embracing this year’s IDPD theme and the three sub-themes:

  • Making cities inclusive and accessible for all,
  • Improving disability data and statistics, and
  • Including persons with invisible disabilities in society and development.1

To incorporate IDPD sub-themes into their work, LHDs can improve the inclusiveness and accessibility of their resources, find population statistics for the people with disabilities they serve and include populations with disabilities in community health assessment efforts, including preparedness efforts. For example, LHDs can plan to provide transportation for patients who receive dialysis in the event of a weather-related emergency.

For LHDs who want to do more to commemorate IDPD, UN Enable1 has the following suggestions:

  1. Include: Observance of the Day provides opportunities for collaborative and inclusive events by all stakeholders – governments, the UN system, civil society, and organizations of persons with disabilities – to focus on issues related to the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society and development, both as beneficiaries and agents of change.
  2. Organize: Hold forums, public discussions, and information campaigns in support of the themes of IDPD 2015 to discuss and share ways of including and empowering persons of all abilities to develop and be fully included in their local communities.
  3. Celebrate: Plan and organize performances everywhere to celebrate the contributions made by persons with disabilities as agents of change in the communities in which they live. Celebrate persons with disabilities by creating opportunities to help realize their potential, be it through music, sport, academia, or interpersonal skills.
  4. Take Action: A major focus of the Day is practical action to realize the objectives of the Day for persons with disabilities and their communities. So, highlight best practices and think about making recommendations to your local political leaders, businesses, academic institutions, cultural centers and others. Work to ensure that your activity leaves a legacy and brings about lasting change.

Reaching out to local organizations that serve and represent people with disabilities can be a crucial first step for LHDs. As a result of experiencing multiple barriers to full and healthy functioning, people with disabilities have valuable experiences, insights, and perspectives to contribute to public health efforts. Disability inclusion and engagement efforts not only help LHDs to serve people with disabilities better, but to develop plans, policies, and programs that work better for everyone, particularly in the case of a public health emergency.

NACCHO’s Health and Disability Project works to contribute to global disability inclusion and empowerment efforts by informing, educating, and supporting LHDs in their efforts to include and engage people with disabilities in everything they do. LHDs interested in improving disability inclusion and engagement can apply for technical assistance from the Health and Disability Project Team. Applicants will be considered on a rolling basis through this spring.

Fill out an application for technical assistance!



  1. United Nations Enable. International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 3 December 2015. United Nations. Published 2015. Accessed December 3, 2015.
  2. United States Department of Health and Human Services. Violence against women with disabilities. Published May 18, 2011. Accessed April 23, 2015.
  3. World Health Organization. Disability and health fact sheet. World Health Organization. Published 2014. Accessed April 16, 2015.
  4. Drum C, McClain MR, Horner-Johnson W, & Taitano G. Health disparities chart book on disability and racial and ethnic status in the United States. University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability. Published August 2011. Accessed December 5, 2015.
  5. World Health Organization. Health topics: Disabilities. World Health Organization. Published 2015. Accessed August 18, 2015.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New features added to Disability and Health Data System (DHDS). National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Published April 15, 2014. Accessed December 5, 2015.
  7. Chan, M. WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan’s message on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2014 (IDPD, 2014). World Health Organization. Published December 3, 2014. Accessed April 17, 2015.

2 thoughts on “International Day of Persons with Disabilities: How Local Health Departments Can Promote Inclusion

  1. Stephanie McCoy
    December 15, 2015 at 8:52 pm

    As a public health professional, I was so surprised I had never heard of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This article was so enlightening for me, and I think it challenges individuals working in public health to consider how we can take action to ensure the concerns relevant to individuals living with disabilities are prioritized.

  2. Barbara A Walsh, RN, MSN, CWOCN
    December 18, 2015 at 9:02 am

    As an Advanced Practice Nurse who treats individuals with wounds, ostomies and incontinence, I strongly support the inclusion of invisible disabilities. Very well done article.

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