UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened a historic U.N. meeting of world leaders Monday "to break barriers and open doors" for the more than 1 billion disabled people around the world.
The goal of the first-ever high-level General Assembly meeting is to spur international action to ensure that the disabled can contribute to the global economy.
"Far too many people with disabilities live in poverty (and) too many suffer from social exclusion" and are denied access to education, health care, and social and legal support, Ban said.
The World Health Organization said a huge increase in hearing aids, glasses and wheelchairs could improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But the disabled have other hurdles to overcome, including discrimination and stigma.
That view was echoed by blind singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, a U.N. Messenger of Peace, who said: "I wish for a day when there would be technology available for the blind ... for every single blind person or persons with disabilities all over the world."
He urged the international community to make it possible so that every single person with disabilities "will be freer" to pursue their lives and dreams.
General Assembly President John W. Ashe stressed the importance of a new global commitment.
"Given the size of such a marginalized group, the onus is on us all to ensure that any future Sustainable Development Goals include the disabled," he said, referring to new U.N. goals being debated for 2015 to 2030 to fight poverty and promote equality.
"Far too many are hidden from view by others, and robbed of any contact, dignity or joy because of poverty, lack of support services, an unwarranted sense of shame or terrible ignorance," Ashe said.
Monday's meeting is the prelude to the annual U.N. gathering of presidents, prime ministers and monarchs, which starts Tuesday.
For the disabled, who represent about 15 percent of the world's population, Monday's meeting is a milestone. Speakers also include U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
"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 6.
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.
Kumaresan said 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 said disabled girls, especially, are highly vulnerable to neglect and abuse.