International Summit on Disability and Health Aims to Achieve #HealthForAll

“Including the experiences and skills of people living with disabilities in the design and delivery of health systems is fundamental to achieving #HealthForAll,” wrote World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Twitter last week.

His tweet was a reminder of the upcoming Thematic Pre-Summit on Disability Inclusion in the Health Sector, which takes place virtually on Wednesday (12 January). 

The pre-summit will formalize a new engagement among participants of the second Global Disability Summit, scheduled for 16-17 February, around the importance of inclusion within the health sector. Discussions around the health theme that will also feed into the larger summit taking place next month, hosted by the governments of Norway and Ghana, and the International Disability Alliance.

The pre-summit focusing on the health sector is a first, insofar as the topic of disability and health services was not part of the first Global Disability Summit held in 2018. 

Wednesday’s two-hour pre-summit will include several panels covering topics such as the need for the health sector to listen to the voices of people who live with disabilities, to how inclusion of people with disabilities could help achieve national health objectives and opportunities for international collaboration. 

The high-level line-up of speakers include WHO DG Tedros; Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the International Disability Alliance; Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre; and Dr Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund.

Mental health to be addressed

Atmiyata’s community and volunteer-based support network for people in distress in Gujarat, India.

One other focus of the health pre-summit event will be the need to improve services for persons with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities. A panel on that issue will include Olga Runciman, co-founder of the Danish Hearing Voices Network.  A psychiatric nurse, she will discuss her own lived experience with schizophrenia, as well as her experience in the health sector to articulate her views about how mental health treatment needs to change to recognize and empower individuals.

“I hear voices, and I don’t want my voices to be removed or go away,” Runciman told Health Policy Watch. “But when you are given the devastating label of schizophrenia, you lose your voice, you most likely experience abuses within the psychiatric system – forced seclusion, forced medication, being tied to beds. It is really difficult to get people to hear and listen to what you are saying.”

Western psychiatry has harmed people with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities, she asserts. Hearing Voices and other rights-based organizations offer models for how treatment can be handled differently. Other alternative models, described in a recent report by the World Health Organization, include the “open-dialogue” approach being practiced in Western Lapland, the Atmiyata community and volunteer-based service in India, and the BET Unit, an open-door psychiatric ward in Norway, which operates around principles of voluntary choice of treatment and minimal drug use.

“The goal is that people will sign on to some of these best practices, quality-of-life programs and help people change their attitudes and to work in different ways,” Runciman said. 

Health systems often neglect people with disabilities 

The idea of bringing the topic of inclusion in the health sector into the summit came following the adoption of a landmark World Health Assembly resolution on achieving the highest attainable standard on health for persons with disabilities in January 2021. The resolution called on countries and health sector partners to move away from an exclusively medical approach to disability towards adopting a comprehensive people-centred and human rights-based approach.

Very often, health systems neglect to consider the needs of people with disabilities, organizers say.  And with around a billion individuals around the world with disabilities, inclusion is essential for countries to reach universal health coverage – something further highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although WHO has been working on disability and health for many years, Wednesday’s pre-summit event represents the building momentum on the issue across a range of WHO programmes, as well as the growing partnership between WHO and the international disability community. 

While the pre-summit will stay focused on disability inclusion in the health sector, the larger summit in February will tackle a broader set of themes covering: Inclusive education, health, employment and livelihood, and inclusion in situations of crises and conflict, including a focus on climate change.

Februrary’s summit will also push for countries to adopt concrete commitments contributing to successful inclusion around themes such as: access to communication and information, enabling independent living; ensuring people with disabilities can access land and property rights. 

To sign up for the pre-summit event, click hereTo maximize inclusion in the pre-summit, International Sign Language and American Sign Language, closed captioning in English, as well as language interpretation in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian and Arabic will be available.  

To learn more about the larger summit, visit

Image Credits: Rasmus Gerdin/ Unsplash, Amiyata, Gujarat, India.

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