In 2001, the International Seminar on the Measurement of Disability was held in New York. During this meeting participants agreed that there was need for common definitions, concepts, standards and methodologies in the production of statistics about persons with disabilities. In addition it was recognized that it would be necessary to gain a clearer understanding of disability, including the numbers of individuals living with a disability, their characteristics and their access to all mainstream policies, systems and services (education, health, social inclusion, transport to mention a few). Accurate and internationally comparable data on disability would also be required in order to measure how successfully persons with disabilities are reached by current programs and policies and to inform future initiatives. In the past, definitions and methodologies for the collection of such data have also not been consistent among UN Member States, resulting in an inability to compare data.
Recognising the need for internationally comparable data collection, the Seminar recommended that standard indicators of disability be developed. There was broad agreement on the need for population-based measures of disability for country use and for international comparisons. This work was greatly needed because data on disability, especially in developing countries, are scarce and often of poor quality.
As a result, the Washington Group on Disability Statistics (WG) was formed as a United Nations Statistical Commission City Group to address this urgent need 1 The main purpose of the WG is the promotion and coordination of international cooperation in the area of health statistics focusing on disability measures suitable for censuses and national surveys. Its major objective is to provide basic necessary information on disability that is comparable throughout the world.
Since its inception in 2001, the WG has developed and tested several tools to be used for the collection of internationally comparable disability statistics. It meets annually with representatives from a range of international statistical offices and non-governmental organisations. In the past 15 years, over 135 countries have had representation within the WG.
At the first meeting, members developed a work plan to guide the group’s efforts. The first priority agreed upon was the development of a Short Set of Questions suitable for a census or survey. The purpose of this set of six questions was to be able to disaggregate the population by disability status in order to ascertain if persons with disabilities are participating equally in all aspects of society. To date, over 60 countries have used these questions in censuses or surveys.
The next step was to develop an Extended Set of Questions on Functioning in the adult population for use in surveys to capture more extensive information on disability. This was followed by a survey module on child functioning, developed in collaboration with UNICEF. Ongoing work of the WG is focusing on issues pertaining to mental health, the environment and participation, such as inclusive education and employment.
The short set of questions has been recommended by the United Nations Statistical Commission and the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Europe Council of European Statisticians as the method for collecting information on disability in the upcoming 2020 round of censuses. Furthermore, this set of questions has been endorsed by a Disability Data Expert Group under the auspices of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs as the means to disaggregate the Sustainable Development Goals by disability status.
The WG has received funding from the World Bank and collaborated with the Statistics Division in The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. The US National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) staffs the Secretariat. In addition, in 2015 the Washington Group received a grant from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to promote the inclusion of the WG question modules in all data systems and to facilitate UN Member States in the collection, analysis, reporting and wider dissemination of information on disability. The Leonard Cheshire Research Centre administers the DFAT grant on behalf of the WG. With this dedicated funding, the WG is able to further develop and promote the dissemination of WG tools and provide global technical assistance.
These collaborations allow the WG to meet its long-term goals of sustainability in the measurement of disability on an international basis.
The priorities for the next 4 years include:
- Provide global technical assistance and training, through regional and implementation workshops and online materials, to National Statistical Offices interested in implementing the WG tools.
- Develop support materials to reach a wider audience
- Investigate the potential for new question sets related to participation ( e.g., inclusive education, employment and mental health