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 was 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.
Monday's meeting is the prelude to the annual U.N. gathering of presidents, prime ministers and monarchs, which starts Tuesday.
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.
Blind singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, a U.N. Messenger of Peace, 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."
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.
For the disabled, who represent about 15 percent of the world's population, Monday's meeting marked a milestone.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told ministers and diplomats from the 193 U.N. member states that "all of our societies are stronger when every single one of our citizens, able bodied and disabled alike, all get to live up to their full potential."
He called the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, "a gold standard with respect to how we treat people and how we open up the world for opportunities" and encouraged other countries to emulate it.
The General Assembly adopted a resolution reaffirming the resolve of heads of state and government "to work together for disability-inclusive development" and advance the rights of all people with disabilities.
The non-binding resolution acknowledges the value of the contribution of the disabled "to the general well-being, progress and diversity of society." It calls for the inclusion of the disabled in all U.N. development goals and urgent action to ensure that they have equal access to education, health care, transport and "full and productive employment," as well as strengthened social protection.
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.