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World Report on Disability 2011. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2011.

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World Report on Disability 2011.

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“Being an amputee myself with functional lower limb prosthetics, I can say that the device enable me to function normally. My prosthetics brought back my confidence and self esteem to participate in mainstream activities of the society, thus changing my outlook in life to positive to more positive. Definitely, my prosthetics had an impact on my present status or the quality of life I am enjoying now because I basically perform all the task that is assigned to me which at the end the day results to quality output and good pay.”


“Coming from a country where there is not much awareness and resources for dealing with post-spinal cord injured victims, my return home was indeed an enormous challenge. Living in a house that was inaccessible, members of my family have had to persevere with daily lifting me up and down the house. Physiotherapy had become a crucial necessity and as a result of the continuous costs incurred, my mother took up the task to administer physiotherapy as well as stand in as my caretaker. During my rehabilitation process, getting admitted for treatment during times of illness or to use physiotherapy facilities was close to impossible as a result of the overwhelming numbers on the waiting list. My rehabilitation period despite challenging was a humbling moment of my life and a continuous process that I face until today. I have learned disability is not inability and a strong mentality and great attitude have been very important!”


“Families find themselves in difficulty after a member of the family has a stroke. I consider myself a stroke survivor but my family are stroke victims. I have been fortunate and have been able to return to work, but I have had to battle all the way. We do not get the help we need, services are so variable and there is not enough speech and language therapy and physiotherapy. After my stroke I had to learn to do everything again, including swallowing and to learn to talk. The first thing that came back to me with my speech was swearing, my first sentence had four expletives in it, but I am told that was normal.”


“If you don't have a proper wheelchair, that is when you really feel that you are disabled. But if you have a proper wheelchair, which meets your needs and suits you, you can forget about your disability.”


Rehabilitation has long lacked a unifying conceptual framework (1). Historically, the term has described a range of responses to disability, from interventions to improve body function to more comprehensive measures designed to promote inclusion (see Box 4.1). The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) provides a framework that can be used for all aspects of rehabilitation (1114).

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Box 4.1

What is rehabilitation? This Report defines rehabilitation as “a set of measures that assist individuals who experience, or are likely to experience, disability to achieve and maintain optimal functioning in interaction with their environments”. (more...)

For some people with disabilities, rehabilitation is essential to being able to participate in education, the labour market, and civic life. Rehabilitation is always voluntary, and some individuals may require support with decision-making about rehabilitation choices. In all cases rehabilitation should help to empower a person with a disability and his or her family.

Article 26, Habilitation and Rehabilitation, of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) calls for:

“… appropriate measures, including through peer support, to enable persons with disabilities to attain and maintain their maximum independence, full physical, mental, social and vocational ability, and full inclusion and participation in all aspects of life”.

The Article further calls on countries to organize, strengthen, and extend comprehensive rehabilitation services and programmes, which should begin as early as possible, based on multidisciplinary assessment of individual needs and strengths, and including the provision of assistive devices and technologies.

This chapter examines some typical rehabilitation measures, the need and unmet need for rehabilitation, barriers to accessing rehabilitation, and ways in which these barriers can be addressed.

Understanding rehabilitation

Rehabilitation measures and outcomes

Rehabilitation measures target body functions and structures, activities and participation, environmental factors, and personal factors. They contribute to a person achieving and maintaining optimal functioning in interaction with their environment, using the following broad outcomes:

prevention of the loss of function

slowing the rate of loss of function

improvement or restoration of function

compensation for lost function

maintenance of current function.

Rehabilitation outcomes are the benefits and changes in the functioning of an individual over time that are attributable to a single measure or set of measures (33). Traditionally, rehabilitation outcome measures have focused on the individual's impairment level. More recently, outcomes measurement has been extended to include individual activity and participation outcomes (34, 35). Measurements of activity and participation outcomes assess the individual's performance across a range of areas – including communication, mobility, self-care, education, work and employment, and quality of life. Activity and participation outcomes may also be measured for programmes. Examples include the number of people who remain in or return to their home or community, independent living rates, return-to-work rates, and hours spent in leisure and recreational pursuits. Rehabilitation outcomes may also be measured through changes in resource use – for example, reducing the hours needed each week for support and assistance services (36).

The following examples illustrate different rehabilitation measures:

A middle-aged woman with advanced diabetes. Rehabilitation might include assistance to regain strength following her hospitalization for diabetic coma, the provision of a prosthesis and gait training after a limb amputation, and the provision of screen-reader software to enable her to continue her job as an accountant after sustaining loss of vision.

A young man with schizophrenia. The man may have trouble with routine daily tasks, such as working, living independently, and maintaining relationships. Rehabilitation might mean drug treatment, education of patients and families, and psychological support via outpatient care, community-based rehabilitation, or participation in a support group.

A child who is deafblind. Parents, teachers, physical and occupational therapists, and other orientation and mobility specialists need to work together to plan accessible and stimulating spaces to encourage development. Caregivers will need to work with the child to develop appropriate touch and sign communication methods. Individualized education with careful assessment will help learning and reduce the child's isolation.

Limitations and restrictions for a child with cerebral palsy, and possible rehabilitation measures, outcomes, and barriers are described in Table 4.1.

Table 4.1. Child with cerebral palsy and rehabilitation.

Table 4.1

Child with cerebral palsy and rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation teams and specific disciplines may work across categories. Rehabilitation measures in this chapter are broadly divided into three categories:

rehabilitation medicine


assistive technologies.

Rehabilitation medicine

Rehabilitation medicine is concerned with improving functioning through the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions, reducing impairments, and preventing or treating complications (12, 37). Doctors with specific expertise in medical rehabilitation are referred to as physiatrists, rehabilitation doctors, or physical and rehabilitation specialists (37). Medical specialists such as psychiatrists, paediatricians, geriatricians, ophthalmologists, neurosurgeons, and orthopaedic surgeons can be involved in rehabilitation medicine, as can a broad range of therapists. In many parts of the world where specialists in rehabilitation medicine are not available, services may be provided by doctors and therapists (see Box 4.2).

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Box 4.2

Clubfoot treatment in Uganda. Clubfoot, a congenital deformity involving one or both feet, is commonly neglected in low and middle-income countries. If left untreated, clubfoot can result in physical deformity, pain in the feet, and impaired mobility, (more...)

Rehabilitation medicine has shown positive outcomes, for example, in improving joint and limb function, pain management, wound healing, and psychosocial well-being (4047).


Therapy is concerned with restoring and compensating for the loss of functioning, and preventing or slowing deterioration in functioning in every area of a person's life. Therapists and rehabilitation workers include occupational therapists, orthotists, physiotherapists, prosthetists, psychologists, rehabilitation and technical assistants, social workers, and speech and language therapists.

Therapy measures include:

training, exercises, and compensatory strategies


support and counselling

modifications to the environment

provision of resources and assistive technology.

Convincing evidence shows that some therapy measures improve rehabilitation outcomes (see Box 4.3). For example, exercise therapy in a broad range of health conditions – including cystic fibrosis, frailness in elderly people, Parkinson disease, stroke, osteoarthritis in the knee and hip, heart disease, and low back pain – has contributed to increased strength, endurance, and flexibility of joints. It can improve balance, posture, and range of motion or functional mobility, and reduce the risk of falls (4951). Therapy interventions have also been found to be suitable for the long-term care of older persons to reduce disability (18). Some studies show that training in activities of daily living have positive outcomes for people with stroke (52).

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Box 4.3

Money well spent: The effectiveness and value of housing adaptations. Public spending on housing adaptations for people with difficulties in functioning in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland amounted to more than £220 million (more...)

Distance training was used in Bangladesh for mothers of children with cerebral palsy in an 18-month therapy programme: it promoted the development of physical and cognitive skills and improved motor skills in the children (53). Counselling, information, and training on adaptive methods, aids, and equipment have been effective for individuals with spinal cord injury and younger people with disabilities (5456). Many rehabilitation measures help people with disabilities to return or continue to work, including adjusting the content or schedule of work, and making changes to equipment and the work environment (57, 58).

Assistive technologies

An assistive technology device can be defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or product, whether it is acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (59).

Common examples of assistive devices are:

crutches, prostheses, orthoses, wheelchairs, and tricycles for people with mobility impairments;

hearing aids and cochlear implants for those with hearing impairments;

white canes, magnifiers, ocular devices, talking books, and software for screen magnification and reading for people with visual impairments;

communication boards and speech synthesizers for people with speech impairments;

devices such as day calendars with symbol pictures for people with cognitive impairment.

Assistive technologies, when appropriate to the user and the user's environment, have been shown to be powerful tools to increase independence and improve participation. A study of people with limited mobility in Uganda found that assistive technologies for mobility created greater possibilities for community participation, especially in education and employment (60). For people in the United Kingdom with disabilities resulting from brain injuries, technologies such as personal digital assistants, and simpler technologies such as wall charts, were closely associated with independence (61). In a study of Nigerians with hearing impairments, provision of a hearing aid was associated with improved function, participation and user satisfaction (62).

Assistive devices have also been reported to reduce disability and may substitute or supplement support services – possibly reducing care costs (63). In the United States of America, data over 15 years from the National Long-Term Care Survey found that increasing use of technology was associated with decreasing reported disability among people aged 65 years and older (64). Another study from the United States showed that users of assistive technologies such as mobility aids and equipment for personal care reported less need for support services (65).

In some countries, assistive devices are an integral part of health care and are provided through the national health care system. Elsewhere, assistive technology is provided by governments through rehabilitation services, vocational rehabilitation, or special education agencies (66), insurance companies, and charitable and nongovernmental organizations.

Rehabilitation settings

The availability of rehabilitation services in different settings varies within and across nations and regions (6770). Medical rehabilitation and therapy are typically provided in acute care hospitals for conditions with acute onset. Follow-up medical rehabilitation, therapy, and assistive devices could be provided in a wide range of settings, including specialized rehabilitation wards or hospitals; rehabilitation centres; institutions such as residential mental and nursing homes, respite care centres, hospices, prisons, residential educational institutions, and military residential settings; or single or multiprofessional practices (office or clinic). Longer-term rehabilitation may be provided within community settings and facilities such as primary health care centres, schools, workplaces, or home-care therapy services (6770).

Needs and unmet needs

Global data on the need for rehabilitation services, the type and quality of measures provided, and estimates of unmet need do not exist. Data on rehabilitation services are often incomplete and fragmented. When data are available, comparability is hampered by differences in definitions, classifications of measures and personnel, populations under study, measurement methods, indicators, and data sources – for example, individuals with disabilities, service providers, or programme managers may experience needs and demands differently (71, 72).

Unmet rehabilitation needs can delay discharge, limit activities, restrict participation, cause deterioration in health, increase dependency on others for assistance, and decrease quality of life (37, 7377). These negative outcomes can have broad social and financial implications for individuals, families, and communities (7880).

Despite acknowledged limitations such as the quality of data and cultural variations in perception of disabilities, the need for rehabilitation services can be estimated in several ways. These include data on the prevalence of disability; disability-specific surveys; and population and administrative data.

Prevalence data on health conditions associated with disability can provide information to assess rehabilitation needs (81). As Chapter 2 indicated, disability rates correlate with the increase in noncommunicable conditions and global ageing. The need for rehabilitation services is projected to increase (82, 83) due to these demographic and epidemiological factors. Strong evidence suggests that impairments related to ageing and many health conditions can be reduced and functioning improved with rehabilitation (8486).

Higher rates of disability indicate a greater potential need for rehabilitation. Epidemiological evidence together with an examination of the number, type, and severity of impairments, and the activity limitations and participation restrictions that may benefit from various rehabilitation measures, can help measure the need for services and may be useful for setting appropriate priorities for rehabilitation (87).

The number of people needing hearing aids worldwide is based on 2005 World Health Organization estimates that about 278 million people have moderate to profound hearing impairments (88). In developed countries, industry experts estimate that about 20% of people with hearing impairments need hearing aids (89), suggesting 56 million potential hearing-aid users worldwide. Hearing aid producers and distributors estimate that hearing aid production currently meets less than 10% of global need (88), and less than 3% of the hearing aid needs in developing countries are met annually (90).

The International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics and the World Health Organization have estimated that people needing prostheses or orthotics and related services represent 0.5% of the population in developing countries; and 30 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (91) require an estimated 180 000 rehabilitation professionals. In 2005 there were 24 prosthetic and orthotic schools in developing countries, graduating 400 trainees annually. Worldwide existing training facilities for prosthetic and orthotic professionals and other providers of essential rehabilitation services are deeply inadequate in relation to the need (92).

A national survey of musculoskeletal impairment in Rwanda concluded that 2.6% of children are impaired and that about 80 000 need physical therapy, 50 000 need orthopaedic surgery, and 10 000 need assistive devices (93).

Most of the available data on national supply and unmet need are derived from disability-specific surveys on specific populations such as:

National studies on living conditions of people with disabilities conducted in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (9498) revealed large gaps in the provision of medical rehabilitation and assistive devices (see Table 2.5 in Chapter 2). Gender inequalities in access to assistive devices were evident in Malawi (men 25.3% and women 14.1%) and Zambia (men 15.7% and women 11.9%) (99).

A survey of physical rehabilitation medicine in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia found a general lack of access to rehabilitation in primary, secondary, tertiary, and community health care settings, as well as regional and socioeconomic inequalities in access (100).

In a study of people identified as disabled from three districts in Beijing, China, 75% of those interviewed expressed a need for a range of rehabilitation services, of which only 27% had received such services (101). A national Chinese study of the need for rehabilitation in 2007 found that unmet need was particularly high for assistive devices and therapy (102).

United States surveys report considerable unmet needs – often caused by funding problems – for assistive technologies (103).

Unmet need for rehabilitation services can also be estimated from administrative and population survey data. The supply of rehabilitation services can be estimated from administrative data on the provision of services, and measures such as waiting times for rehabilitation services can proxy the extent to which demand for services is being met.

A recent global survey (2006–2008) of vision services in 195 countries found that waiting times in urban areas averaged less than one month, while waiting times in rural areas ranged from six months to a year (104). Proxy measures may not always be reliable. In the case of waiting times, for instance, lack of awareness of services and beliefs about disability influence treatment-seeking, while restrictions on who is legitimately waiting for services can complicate data interpretation (105107).

Indicators on the number of people demanding but not receiving services, or receiving inadequate or inappropriate services, can provide useful planning information (108). Data on rehabilitation often are not disaggregated from other health care services, however, and rehabilitation measures are not included in existing classification systems, which could provide a framework for describing and measuring rehabilitation. Administrative data on supply are often fragmented because rehabilitation can take place in a variety of settings and be performed by different personnel.

Comparing multiple data sources can provide more robust interpretations, if a common framework like the ICF is used. As an example, the Arthritis Community Research and Evaluation Unit in Toronto merged administrative data sources to profile rehabilitation demand and supply across all regions of the province of Ontario (109). The researchers triangulated population data with the number of health-care workers per region to estimate the number of workers per person: they found that the higher concentration of workers in the southern region did not coincide with the highest areas of demand, causing unmet demand for rehabilitation.

Addressing barriers to rehabilitation

The barriers to rehabilitation service provision can be overcome through a series of actions, including:

reforming policies, laws, and delivery systems, including development or revision of national rehabilitation plans;

developing funding mechanisms to address barriers related to financing of rehabilitation;

increasing human resources for rehabilitation, including training and retention of rehabilitation personnel;

expanding and decentralizing service delivery;

increasing the use and affordability of technology and assistive devices;

expanding research programmes, including improving information and access to good practice guidelines.

Reforming policies, laws, and delivery systems

A 2005 global survey (110) of the implementation of the nonbinding, United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities found that:

in 48 of 114 (42%) countries that responded to the survey, rehabilitation policies were not adopted;

in 57 (50%) countries legislation on rehabilitation for people with disabilities was not passed;

in 46 (40%) countries rehabilitation programmes were not established.

Many countries have good legislation and related policies on rehabilitation, but the implementation of these policies, and the development and delivery of regional and local rehabilitation services, have lagged. Systemic barriers include:

Lack of strategic planning. A study of rehabilitation medicine related to physical impairments – excluding assistive technology, sensory impairments, and specialized disciplines – in five central and eastern European countries suggested that the lack of strategic planning for services had resulted in an uneven distribution of service capacity and infrastructure (100).

Lack of resources and health infrastructure. Limited resources and health infrastructure in developing countries, and in rural and remote communities in developed countries, can reduce access to rehabilitation and quality of services (111). In a survey on the reasons for not using needed health facilities in two Indian states, 52.3% of respondents indicated that no health-care facility in the area was available (112). Other countries lack rehabilitation services that have proven effective at reducing long-term costs, such as early intervention for children under the age of 5 (5, 113115). A study of users of community-based rehabilitation (CBR) in Ghana, Guyana, and Nepal showed limited impact on physical well-being because CBR workers had difficulties providing physical rehabilitation, assistive devices, and referral services (116). In Haiti, before the 2010 earthquake, an estimated three quarters of amputees received prosthetic management due to the lack of availability of services (117).

Lack of agency responsible to administer, coordinate, and monitor services. In some countries all rehabilitation is integrated in health care and financed under the national health system (118, 119). In other countries responsibilities are divided between different ministries, and rehabilitation services are often poorly integrated into the overall system and not well coordinated (120). A report of 29 African countries found that many lack coordination and collaboration among the different sectors and ministries involved in disability and rehabilitation, and 4 of the 29 countries did not have a lead ministry (119).

Inadequate health information systems and communication strategies can contribute to low rates of participation in rehabilitation. Aboriginal Australians have high rates of cardiovascular disease but low rates of participation in cardiac rehabilitation, for example. Barriers to rehabilitation include poor communication across the health care sector and between providers (notably between primary and secondary care), inconsistent and insufficient data collection processes, multiple clinical information systems, and incompatible technologies (121). Poor communication results in ineffective coordination of responsibilities among providers (75).

Complex referral systems can limit access. Where access to rehabilitation services is controlled by doctors (77), medical rules or attitudes of primary physicians can obstruct individuals with disabilities from obtaining services (122). People are sometimes not referred, or inappropriately referred, or unnecessary medical consultations may increase their costs (123126). This is particularly relevant to people with complex needs requiring multiple rehabilitation measures.

Absence of engagement with people with disabilities. The study of 114 countries mentioned above did not consult with disabled people's organizations in 51 countries, and did not consult with families of persons with disabilities about design, implementation, and evaluation of rehabilitation programmes in 57 of the study countries (110).

Countries that lack policies and legislation on rehabilitation should consider introducing them, especially countries that are signatories to the CRPD, as they are required to align national law with Articles 25 and 26 of the Convention. Rehabilitation can be incorporated into general legislation on health, and into relevant employment, education, and social services legislation, as well as into specific legislation for persons with disabilities.

Policy responses should emphasize early intervention and use of rehabilitation to enable people with a broad range of health conditions to improve or maintain their level of functioning, with a specific focus on ensuring participation and inclusion, such as continuing to work (127). Services should be provided as close as possible to communities where people live, including in rural areas (128).

Development, implementation, and monitoring of policy and laws should include users (see Box 4.4) (132). Rehabilitation professionals must be aware of the policies and programmes given the role of rehabilitation in keeping people with disabilities participating in society (133, 134).

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Box 4.4

Reform of mental health law in Italy – closing psychiatric institutions is not enough. In 1978 Italy introduced Law No. 180 gradually phasing out psychiatric hospitals and introducing a community-based system of psychiatric care. Social psychiatrist (more...)

National rehabilitation plans and improved collaboration

Creating or amending national plans on rehabilitation, and establishing infrastructure and capacity to implement the plan are critical to improving access to rehabilitation. Plans should be based on analysis of the current situation, consider the main aspects of rehabilitation provision – leadership, financing, information, service delivery, products and technologies, and the rehabilitation workforce (135) – and define priorities based on local need. Even if it is not immediately possible to provide rehabilitation services for all who need them, a plan involving smaller, annual investments may progressively strengthen and expand the rehabilitation system.

Successful implementation of the plan depends on establishing or strengthening mechanisms for intersectoral collaboration. An interministerial committee or agency for rehabilitation can coordinate across organizations. For example, a Disability Action Council with representatives from the government, NGOs, and training programmes was established in Cambodia in 1997, to support coordination and cooperation across rehabilitation providers, decrease duplication and improve distribution of services and referral systems, and promote joint ventures in training (136). The Council has been very successful in developing physical rehabilitation and supporting professional training (physical therapy, prosthetics, orthotics, wheelchairs, and CBR) (137). Further benefits include (136):

joint negotiation for equipment and supplies;

sharing knowledge and expertise;

continuing education through sharing specialist educators, establishing clinical education sites, reviewing and revising curricula, and disseminating information;

support for the transition from expatriate professional services to local management.

Developing funding mechanisms for rehabilitation

The cost of rehabilitation can be a barrier for people with disabilities in high-income as well as low-income countries. Even where funding from governments, insurers, or NGOs is available, it may not cover enough of the costs to make rehabilitation affordable (117). People with disabilities have lower incomes and are often unemployed, so are less likely to be covered by employer-sponsored health plans or private voluntary health insurance (see Chapter 8). If they have limited finances and inadequate public health coverage, access to rehabilitation may also be limited, compromising activity and participation in society (138).

Lack of financial resources for assistive technologies is a significant barrier for many (101). People with disabilities and their families purchase more than half of all assistive devices directly (139). In a national survey in India, two thirds of the assistive technology users reported having paid for their devices themselves (112). In Haiti, poor access to prosthetic services was attributed partially to users being unable to pay (117).

Spending on rehabilitation services is difficult to determine because it generally is not disaggregated from other health care expenditure. Limited information is available on expenditure for the full range of rehabilitation measures (68, 74, 138). Governments in 41 of 114 countries did not provide funding for assistive devices in 2005 (110). Even in the 79 countries where insurance schemes fully or partially covered assistive devices, 16 did not cover poor people with disabilities, and 28 did not cover all geographical locations (110). In some cases existing programmes did not cover maintenance and repairs for assistive devices, which can leave individuals with defective equipment and limit its use (76, 112, 140). One third of the 114 countries providing data to the 2005 global study did not allocate specific budgets for rehabilitation services (110). OECD countries appear to be investing more in rehabilitation than in the past, but the spending is still low (120). For example, unweighted averages for all OECD countries between 2006 and 2008 indicate that public spending on rehabilitation as part of labour market programmes was 0.02% of GDP with no increase over time (127).

Health care funding often provides selective coverage for rehabilitation services – for example, by restricting the number or type of assistive devices, the number of therapy visits over a specific time, or the maximum cost (77) – in order to control cost. While cost controls are needed, they should be balanced with the need to provide services to those who can benefit. In the United States, government and private insurance plans limit coverage of assistive technologies and may not replace ageing devices until they are broken, sometimes requiring a substantial waiting period (77). A study of assistive device use by people with rheumatic disease in Germany and the Netherlands found significant differences between the two countries, thought to result from differences in country-related health care systems with respect to prescription and reimbursement rules (141).

Policy actions require a budget matching the scope and priorities of the plan. The budget for rehabilitation services should be part of the regular budgets of relevant ministries – notably health – and should consider ongoing needs. Ideally, the budget line for rehabilitation services would be separated to identify and monitor spending.

Many countries – particularly low-income and middle-income countries – struggle to finance rehabilitation, but rehabilitation is a good investment because it builds human capital (36, 142). Financing strategies can improve the provision, access, and coverage of rehabilitation services, particularly in low-income and middle-income countries. Any new strategy should be carefully evaluated for its applicability and cost–effectiveness before being implemented. Financing strategies may include the following:

Reallocate or redistribute resources. Public rehabilitation services should be reviewed and evaluated, with resources reallocated effectively. Possible modifications include:

changing from hospital or clinic-based rehabilitation to community-based interventions (74, 83);

reorganizing and integrating services to make them more efficient (26, 74, 143);

relocating equipment to where it is most needed (144).

Cooperate internationally. Developed countries, through their development aid, could provide long-term technical and financial assistance to developing countries to strengthen rehabilitation services, including rehabilitation personnel development. Aid agencies from Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States have supported such activities (145147).

Include rehabilitation services in foreign aid for humanitarian crises. Conflict and natural disaster cause injuries and disabilities and make people with existing disabilities even more vulnerable – for example, after an earthquake there are increased difficulties in moving around due to the rubble from collapsed buildings and the loss of mobility devices. Foreign aid should also include trauma care and rehabilitation services (135, 142, 148).

Combine public and private financing. Clear demarcation of responsibilities and good coordination among sectors is needed for this strategy to be effective. Some services could be publicly funded but privately provided – as in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, and India.

Target poor people with disabilities. The essential elements of rehabilitation need to be identified, publicly funded, and made available for free to people with low incomes, as in South Africa (149) and India (8).

Evaluate coverage of health insurance, including criteria for equitable access. A study in the United States on access to physical therapy found that health care funding sources provided different coverage for physical therapy services depending on whether people had cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or spinal cord injury (74).

Increasing human resources for rehabilitation

Global information about the rehabilitation workforce is inadequate. In many countries national planning and review of human resources for health do not refer to rehabilitation (135). Many lack the technical capacity to accurately monitor their rehabilitation workforce, so data are often unreliable and out-of-date. Furthermore, the terms to describe the workers vary, proven analytical tools are absent, and skills and experience for assessing crucial policy issues are lacking (150, 151).

Many countries, developing and developed, report inadequate, unstable, or nonexistent supplies, (83, 152, 153) and unequal geographic distribution of, rehabilitation professionals (82, 140). Developed countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States report shortages of rehabilitation personnel in rural and remote areas (154156).

The low quality and productivity of the rehabilitation workforce in low-income countries are disconcerting. The training for rehabilitation and other health personnel in developing countries, can be more complex than in developed countries. Training needs to consider the absence of other practitioners for consultation and advice and the lack of medical services, surgical treatment, and follow-up care through primary health care facilities. Rehabilitation personnel working in low-resource settings require extensive knowledge on pathology, and good diagnostic, problem-solving, clinical decision-making, and communication skills (136).

Physiotherapy services are the ones most often available, often in small hospitals (144). A recent comprehensive survey of rehabilitation in Ghana identified no rehabilitation doctor or occupational therapist in the country, and only a few prosthetists, orthotists, and physical therapists, resulting in very limited access to therapy and assistive technologies (68). Services such as speech pathology are nearly absent in many countries (144). In India people with speech impairments were much less likely to receive assistive devices than people with visual impairments (112).

An extensive survey of rehabilitation doctors in sub-Saharan Africa identified only six, all in South Africa, for more than 780 million people, while Europe has more than 10 000 and the United States more than 7000 (142). Discrepancies are also large for other rehabilitation professions: 0.04–0.6 psychologists per 100 000 population in low-income and lower middle-income countries, compared with 1.8 in upper middle-income countries and 14 in high-income countries; and 0.04 social workers per 100 000 population in low-income countries compared with 15.7 in high-income countries (157). Data from official statistical sources showing the large disparities in supply of physiotherapists are shown in Fig. 4.1, and data from a survey by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists showing the disparities in occupational therapists are shown in Fig. 4.2.

This graph shows the number of physiotherapists per 10,000 population in 37 selected countries. There is less than 1 physiotherapist per 10,000 population in Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Myanmar, Senegal, Mali, Rwanda, or Uganda, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Togo, Morocco, Swaziland, Mauritius, Zambia, Cape Verde, Jordan, Kenya, Namibia, Iraq, Egypt and Oman. There are between 1-2 physiotherapists per 10,000 population in Bahrain, the Seychelles, Tunisia, and South Africa. There are between 4-6 physiotherapists per 10,000 population in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and in Finland there are nearly 21 physiotherapists per 10,000 population.

Fig. 4.1

Physiotherapists per 10 000 population in selected countries. Source (158).

This graph shows the number of occupational therapists per 10,000 population in 48 selected countries. The figure is less than 1 occupational therapist per 10 000 in Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tanzania, India, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Namibia, Kenya, Philippines, Iran Columbia, Barbados, Latvia, South Africa, Czech Republic, Republic of Korea, Venezuela, China, Macao, Brazil, Spain and Singapore. The figure rises to between 1-2 occupational therapists per 10 000 population in Cyprus, Greece, France, Argentina, Austria Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands and Slovenia. There are between 2-4 occupational therapists per 10 000 people in Bermuda, the United States, Canada Finland and Germany and between 4-6 in Israel, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Norway. In Australia and Iceland there are between 6-8 occupational therapists per 10 000 population, while in Sweden and Denmark there are between 10-12.

Fig. 4.2

Occupational therapists per 10 000 population in selected countries. Note: Many professional associations collect data on rehabilitation personnel. Professionals are not obliged, however, to be members or to respond to the survey questionnaires. This (more...)

The lack of women in rehabilitation professions, and the cultural attitudes towards gender, affect rehabilitation services in some contexts. The low number of women technicians in India, for example, may partly explain why women with disabilities were less likely than men to receive assistive devices (112). Female patients in Afghanistan can be treated only by female therapists, and men only by men. Restrictions on travel for women prevent female physiotherapists from participating in professional development and training workshops and limit their ability to make home visits (160).

Expanding education and training

Many developing countries do not have educational programmes for rehabilitation professionals. According to the 2005 global survey of 114 countries, 37 had not taken action to train rehabilitation personnel and 56 had not updated medical knowledge of health-care providers on disability (110).

Differences across countries in the type of training and the competency standards required influence the quality of services (92, 136, 161). University training for rehabilitation personnel may not be feasible in all developing countries because of the academic expertise required, the time and expense, and the ability of national governments and NGOs to sustain the training (162165). Long-term funding commitment from Governments and donors is required (136, 166).

Education for rehabilitation personnel – commonly institutional and urban-based – is not always relevant to the needs of the population, especially in rural communities (167). In Afghanistan one study found that physical therapists with two years of training had difficulty with clinical reasoning and that clinical competencies varied, especially for managing complex disabilities and identifying their own training needs (168).

Given the global lack of rehabilitation professionals, mixed or graded levels of training may be required to increase the provision of essential rehabilitation services. Where graded training is used, consideration should be given to career development and continuing education opportunities between levels.

University professional education – advocated by developed countries and professional associations – builds discipline-specific qualifications in physical and occupational therapy, prosthetics and orthotics, and speech and language, among others (162165). Professional associations support minimum standards for training (162164, 169). The complexity of working in resource-poor contexts suggests the importance of either university or strong technical diploma education (136). The feasibility of establishing and sustaining tertiary training needs is determined by several factors including political stability, availability of trained educators, availability of financial support, educational standards within the country, and the cost and time for training.

Low- and middle-income countries such as China, India, Lebanon, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam, and Zimbabwe have responded to the lack of professional resources by establishing mid-level training programmes (92, 170). Rehabilitation training times have been shortened after wars and conflicts when the number of people with impairments has increased sharply – for example, in the United States after World War I, and in Cambodia after its civil war (126, 136, 171). Mid-level therapists are also relevant in developed countries: a collaborative project in north-eastern England compensated for difficulties in recruiting qualified professionals by training rehabilitation assistants to work alongside rehabilitation therapists (152).

Mid-level workers, therapists and technicians can be trained as multipurpose rehabilitation workers with basic training in a range of disciplines (occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, for example), or as profession-specific assistants that provide rehabilitation services under supervision (152, 170). Prosthetics and orthotics courses meet the WHO/ISPO standards in several developing countries including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, El Salvador, India, Indonesia, United Republic of Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Sudan, and Viet Nam (see Box 4.5) (92, 172). A positive side-effect of mid-level training is that trained professionals are limited in their ability to emigrate to developed countries (136). Mid-level training is also less expensive, and although insufficient by itself, it may be an option for extending services in the absence of full professional training (136).

Box Icon

Box 4.5

Education in prosthetics and orthotics through the University Don Bosco. In 1996 the University Don Bosco in San Salvador, El Salvador, started the first formal training programme for prosthetics and orthotics in Central America, with support from the (more...)

Community-based workers – a third level of training – shows promise in addressing geographical access (173, 174). They can work across traditional health and social services boundaries to provide basic rehabilitation in the community while referring patients to more specialized services as needed (152, 175). CBR workers generally have minimal training, and rely on established medical and rehabilitation services for specialist treatment and referral.

Providing opportunities for people with disabilities to train as rehabilitation personnel would broaden the pool of qualified people and could benefit patients through improved empathy, understanding, and communication (176).

Training existing health-care personnel in rehabilitation

The duration of specialist training for doctors in Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine varies across the world: three years in China (Chinese Standards), at least four years in Europe (37), and five years in the United States (177). Some countries have used shorter courses to meet the urgent need for rehabilitation doctors: in China, for example, a one-year certificate course in applied rehabilitation, run between 1990 and 1997, was developed at Tongji Medical University, Wuhan, graduating 315 doctors now working across 30 provinces (Nan, personal communication 2010).

Primary health-care workers can benefit from broad rehabilitation training (using the biopsychosocial framework proposed by the ICF) (178). In the absence of rehabilitation specialists, health staff with appropriate training can help meet service shortages or supplement services. For example, nurses and health-care assistants can follow up on therapy services (179). Training programmes for health-care professionals should be user-driven, need-based, and relevant to the roles of the professionals (180).

Building training capacity

Academic institutions and universities in developed countries and international NGOs – with support from international donors and in partnership with governments or a local NGO – can build training capacity by helping train educators and supporting the upgrade of training courses in developing countries (136, 142, 181). The Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics, with La Trobe University in Australia, recently upgraded a programme from Category II (orthopaedic technologist) to a bachelor's degree in Prosthetics and Orthotics using distance education (182). This approach has enabled students to remain in their home country, and is more cost-effective than full-time study in Australia (182).

Where training capacity does not exist in one country, regional training centres may provide a transitional solution (see Box 4.5). Mobility India trains rehabilitation therapy assistants, and provides specific training in prosthetics and orthotics, to students from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. But this approach generates only a limited number of graduates, and travel and subsistence increase costs – so it cannot meet the vast personnel needs of other developing countries.

Curricula content

Training for rehabilitation personnel should include an overview of relevant national and international legislation, including the CRPD, that promotes client-centred approaches and shared decision-making between people with disabilities and professionals (167).

The ICF can create a common understanding among health-care staff, and facilitate communication, the use of assessment tools, and standardized outcome measures to better manage rehabilitation interventions (17, 178).

Tertiary and mid-level education can be made more relevant to the needs of people in rural communities by including content on community needs, using appropriate technologies, and using progressive education methods including active learning and problem-based orientation (167, 175, 183, 184). Including content on the social, political, cultural, and economic factors that affect the health and quality of life of persons with disabilities can make the curriculum more relevant to the context in which rehabilitation personnel will work (167, 185187). Studies have also shown that interdisciplinary team training develops collaboration, reduces staff burnout, improves rehabilitation implementation, and increases client participation and satisfaction (188).

Recruiting and retaining rehabilitation personnel

Mechanisms to ensure employment for rehabilitation graduates are vital to the future of graduates and the sustainability of training. The WHO code of practice on the recruitment of health-care workers (189) reflects a commitment to strengthen health systems globally, and to address the unequal distribution of health-care workers both within countries and throughout the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and developing countries. The code stresses the need for awareness of local health care needs in low-income countries, and for promotion of worker exchanges and training between countries.

Several countries have training programmes that target potential rehabilitation and health students from the local community, especially in rural or remote areas (190). In Nepal the Institute of Medicine accepts local, mid-level health workers with a minimum of three years' experience for medical training. The rationale is that locally recruited and trained personnel may be better equipped and prepared for living in the local community (183). Thailand has used this strategy for rural recruitment and training, adapting it so that workers are assigned public sector positions in their home towns (190).

Even where training programmes exist, staff are often difficult to retain, particularly in rural and remote areas. Despite a huge need for rehabilitation services in both urban and rural Cambodia, for example, hospitals cannot afford to hire rehabilitation professionals (136). Like other health staff, retaining rehabilitation professionals is affected by poor working conditions, safety concerns, poor management, conflict, inadequate training, and lack of career development and continuing education opportunities (68, 175, 190192).

International demand for skills also influence where rehabilitation workers seek work (190, 193). Health-care workers often relocate from low-income countries to high-income countries, in search of better living standards, political stability, and professional opportunities (82, 144, 194, 195). While most attention has been given to medical and nursing professionals, a wave of physical therapists have also emigrated from developing countries such as Brazil, Egypt, India, Nigeria, and the Philippines (196, 197).

Long-term retention of personnel, using various incentives and mechanisms, is fundamental to continuing services (see Table 4.2).

Table 4.2. Incentives and mechanisms for retaining personnel.

Table 4.2

Incentives and mechanisms for retaining personnel.

Expanding and decentralizing service delivery

Rehabilitation services are often located too far from where a person with a disability lives (199201). Major rehabilitation centres are usually located in urban areas; even basic therapeutic services often are not available in rural areas (202, 203). Travelling to secondary or tertiary rehabilitation services can be costly and time-consuming, and public transport is often not adapted for people with mobility difficulties (77, 174). In Uganda two studies on clubfoot treatment protocols found a significant association between treatment adherence and the distance patients had to travel to the clinic (38, 204).

Some people with disabilities have complex rehabilitation needs requiring intensive or expert management in tertiary care settings (see Box 4.6) (77, 207, 208). However the majority of people require fairly low-cost, modest rehabilitation services in primary and secondary health care settings (119, 207). Integrating rehabilitation into primary and secondary health care settings can:

Box Icon

Box 4.6

Brazil – Simplified rehabilitation programs in a hospital in São Paulo. São Paulo has seen a great increase in the number of people with injury-related disabilities. The Orthopaedic and Traumatology Institute at the Clinical Hospital (more...)

Help coordinate the delivery of rehabilitation services (126), and having an interdisciplinary health care team under one roof can provide essential health care at an affordable cost (209).

Improve availability, accessibility, and affordability (200) which can overcome barriers to referral, such as inaccessible locations, inadequate services, and the high costs of private rehabilitation (100, 126, 210).

Improve patient experience by ensuring services are available early and that waiting time and travelling time are reduced. Together with patient involvement in service development, this can produce better outcomes, improve compliance with treatment, and increase satisfaction among patients and rehabilitation personnel (211).

Referral systems are required between different modes of service delivery (inpatient, outpatient, home-based care) and levels of health service provision (primary, secondary, and tertiary care facilities and community settings) (100, 136, 212).

Integration and decentralization are therefore beneficial for people with conditions requiring regular or protracted interventions, and for elderly people (213). Evaluation of a primary care-based, low-vision service in Wales, showed that low-vision assessments increased by 51%; waiting time fell from more than six months to less than two months; travel time to the nearest provider was reduced for 80% of people; visual disability scores improved significantly; and 97% of patients said that they found the service helpful (214).

Coordinated multidisciplinary rehabilitation

Coordination is required to ensure the continuity of care when more than one provider is involved in rehabilitation (216). The aim of coordinated rehabilitation is to improve functional outcomes and reduce costs. Evidence has shown that the provision of coordinated, multidisciplinary rehabilitation services can be effective and efficient (208).

Multidisciplinary teams can convey many rehabilitation benefits to patients. For example, multidisciplinary rehabilitation for persons with disabilities associated with obstructive pulmonary disease has been found to reduce the use of health services (217). Multidisciplinary therapy services for elderly people showed that patients' ability to engage in activities of daily living improved, and the loss of functioning decreased (6, 218). Using a team approach to improve participation in society for young people with physical disabilities has proven cost-effective (219).

Community-delivered services

Community-delivered rehabilitation interventions are an important part of the continuum of rehabilitation services, and can help improve efficiency and effectiveness of inpatient rehabilitation services (220). A systematic review of the effectiveness of community-based interventions to maintain physical function and independence in elderly people found that the interventions reduced the number of falls and admissions to nursing homes and hospitals, and improved physical function (6). Community-delivered services also respond to workforce shortages, geographical population dispersion, changing demographics, and technological innovations (175, 221). Efforts to provide rehabilitation more flexibly are increasing, including through home-based services and schools (222). Rehabilitation services should be provided as close as possible to people's homes and communities (223, 224).

In low-resource, capacity-constrained settings, efforts should focus on accelerating the supply of services in communities through CBR (112, 175), complemented with referral to secondary services (see Box 4.7) (175). Examples of measures in community-based rehabilitation include:

Box Icon

Box 4.7

Physical assistance to earthquake victims and rehabilitation service strengthening in Gujarat, India. On 26 January 2001 an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale struck Gujarat State, India. An estimated 18 000 people were killed and 130 000 people (more...)

Identifying people with impairments and facilitating referrals. CBR workers in Bangladesh were trained as “key informants” to identify and refer children with visual impairments to specialist eye camps; referrals by the informants accounted for 64% of all referrals to the eye camps. Children were identified earlier and were more representative of the overall incidence of blindness across the community (225). A subsequent review of 11 similar studies that used Participatory Rural Appraisal and informants to identify disabled children concluded that community-based methods were consistently less expensive than other methods, and that children benefited from longer engagement with subsequent community interventions (226).

Delivering simple therapeutic strategies through rehabilitation workers, or taught to individuals with disabilities or a family member. Examples include adopting a better posture to prevent contractures, and training in daily living skills (227).

Providing individual or group-based educational, psychological, and emotional support services for persons with disabilities and their families. A study of a CBR model for people with chronic schizophrenia in rural India found that while the community-based rehabilitation model was more time- and resource-intensive than outpatient services, it was more efficient, better at overcoming economic, cultural, and geographic barriers, better for programme compliance, and appropriate for resource-poor settings (211). Another study on CBR in Italy found that people with mental illness experienced improved interpersonal relationships and social inclusion. Very isolated people also benefited from the close relationship developed between the patient and the CBR worker (228).

Involving the community. In Thailand a study in two rural districts building capacity for CBR used group meetings for people with disabilities, their families, and community members to manage rehabilitation problems collaboratively (167).

Increasing the use and affordability of technology

Assistive devices

Many people around the world acquire assistive technology on the open market. Access to assistive technology can be improved by improving economies of scale in purchasing and production to reduce cost. Centralized, large-scale collective purchasing, or consortium buying, nationally or regionally, can reduce costs. For example, the General Eye and Low Vision Centre in China, in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, has a centralized system that purchases bulk supplies of high-quality but affordable low-vision devices. The centre also undertakes quality control and distributes low-vision devices to more than 70 non-commercial organizations in all regions (229).

Mass production can lower costs if the device uses universal design principles, and is marketed widely (see Chapter 6 for further details). Expanding markets beyond regional or national boundaries may generate the volume necessary to achieve economies of scale and to produce assistive devices at competitive prices (230, 231).

Manufacturing or assembling products locally, using local materials, can reduce cost and ensure that devices are suitable for the context. Locally-made products may be complex items such as wheelchairs, or simpler items such as seating. Other production options include importing the components and assembling the final product locally. Some governments offer low-interest loans to enterprises producing aids for people with disabilities, while others – Viet Nam, for example – offer tax exemptions and other subsidies to such manufacturers (232).

Reducing duty and import taxes can help where countries need to import assistive devices – for instance, because the local market is too small to sustain local production. Viet Nam does not impose import taxes on assistive devices for persons with disabilities (232), and Nepal has reduced duties for institutions importing assistive devices (233).

Even where free or subsidized schemes for provision of assistive devices are available, unless professionals and people with disabilities are aware of their existence, they will not benefit from them, so information sharing and awareness is vital (112, 234).

To ensure that assistive devices are appropriate, suitable and of high quality (89, 235237), the devices need to:

Suit the environment. A large number of wheelchairs in low-income and middle-income countries, donated by the international community without related services, are rejected because they are not appropriate for the user in their environment (238, 239).

Be suitable for the user. Poor selection and fit of assistive devices, or lack of training in their use, may cause further problems and secondary conditions. Devices should be selected carefully and fitted properly. Users should be engaged in assessment and selection to minimize abandonment because of a mismatch between need and device.

Include adequate follow-up to ensure safe and efficient use. A study in rural Finland on why prescribed hearing aids remain unused found that follow-up care, including counselling, resulted in increased and more consistent use of the devices. Availability and affordability of local maintenance is also important. Access to batteries affects ongoing hearing-aid use, for instance. Improved hearing-aid battery technologies are needed for resource-poor settings. A project in Botswana discovered that rechargeable batteries using solar power offered a promising option (240).


The use of information, communication, and related technologies for rehabilitation is an emerging resource that can enhance the capacity and accessibility of rehabilitation measures by providing interventions remotely (241243).

Telerehabilitation technologies include:

video and teleconferencing technologies in accessible formats;

mobile phones;

remote data-collection equipment and telemonitoring – for example, cardiac monitors.

Technology may be used by people with disabilities, rehabilitation workers, peers, trainers, supervisors, and community workers and families.

Where the Internet is available, e-health (telehealth or telemedicine) and telerehabilitation techniques have enabled people in remote areas to receive expert treatment from specialists located elsewhere. Examples of telerehabilitation include:

telepsychiatry services (244), cardiac rehabilitation (245247), speech and language therapy (248, 249), and cognitive rehabilitation for people with traumatic brain injury (250, 251);

remote assessments to provide home modification services to underserved elderly people (252);

training and support of health-care personnel (210);

computerized guidelines to help clinicians use appropriate interventions (253);

consultation between tertiary hospital and community hospitals for problems related to prosthetics, orthotics, and wheelchair prescription (254);

sharing professional expertise between countries, as well as at critical times such as in the aftermath of a disaster (181).

Growing evidence on the efficacy and effectiveness of telerehabilitation shows that telerehabilitation leads to similar or better clinical outcomes when compared to conventional interventions (255). Further information on resource allocation and costs is needed to support policy and practice (255).

Expanding research and evidence-based practice

Some aspects of rehabilitation have benefited from significant research, but others have received little attention. Validated research on specific rehabilitation interventions and programmes for people with disabilities – including medical, therapeutic, assistive, and community-based rehabilitation – is limited (256258). Rehabilitation lacks randomized controlled trials – widely recognized as the most rigorous method of testing interventions efficacy (259, 260).

Lack of reliable research hinders the development and implementation of effective rehabilitation policies and programmes. More research on rehabilitation in different contexts is needed, particularly on (261, 262):

the link between rehabilitation needs, receipt of services, health outcomes (functioning and quality of life), and costs;

access barriers and facilitators for rehabilitation, models of service provision, approaches to human resource development, financing modalities, among others;

cost–effectiveness and sustainability of rehabilitation measures, including community-based rehabilitation programmes.

Obstacles to strengthening research capacity include insufficient rehabilitation researchers, inadequate infrastructure to train and mentor researchers, and the absence of partnerships between relevant disciplines and organizations representing persons with disabilities.

Research on rehabilitation has several characteristics that differ fundamentally from biomedical research, and which can make the research difficult:

  1. There is no common taxonomy of rehabilitation measures (12, 257).
  2. Rehabilitation outcomes can be difficult to characterize and study (257) given the breadth and complexity of measures. Rehabilitation often employs several measures simultaneously, and involves workers from different disciplines. This can often make it difficult to measure changes resulting from interventions, such as the specific outcomes from therapy compared to an assistive device where the two are used concurrently.
  3. Few valid outcome measures for activity limitations and participation restrictions can be reliably scored by different health professionals within a multidisciplinary team (263, 264).
  4. Sample sizes are often too small. The range of disabilities is extremely large, and conditions diverse. Rehabilitation measures are highly individualized and based on health condition, impairments, and contextual factors, and often the numbers of people within homogeneous groups that can be included in research studies are small. This may preclude the use of controlled trials (37).
  5. The need to allow for participation of people with disabilities – in decision-making through the process of rehabilitation – requires research designs and methods that may not be considered rigorous under current grading systems.
  6. Research-controlled trials, which require blinding and placebo controls, may not be feasible or ethical if services are denied for control groups (260, 265).

Information and good practice guidelines

Information to guide good practice is essential for building capacity, strengthening rehabilitation systems, and producing cost-effective services and better outcomes.

Good rehabilitation practice uses research evidence. It is derived not from single studies, but from an interpretation of one or more studies, or systematic reviews of studies (265267), and provides the best available research on techniques, effectiveness, cost–benefits, and consumer perspectives. Rehabilitation professionals can obtain information on good practices through:

Guidelines that apply research knowledge, usually on a specific health condition, to actual practice for clinicians.

An independent search for specific interventions.

Continuing professional education.

Clinical guidance notes on good practice from employers and health organizations.

Discipline-specific Internet databases that appraise the research for clinicians. A wide variety of sources, including general bibliographic databases and databases specializing in rehabilitation research, are available on the Internet. Most of these databases have already evaluated the research for quality, provided ratings of research studies, and summarized the evidence.

Evidence-based practice attempts to apply the most recent, appropriate, and effective rehabilitation interventions drawn from research (259). Barriers to the development of guidelines and to the integration of evidence into practice include: lack of professional time and skills, limited access to evidence (including language barriers), difficulty in arriving at a consensus, and adapting existing guidelines to local contexts. These issues are particularly relevant to developing countries (195, 268). A study from Botswana, for example, highlights the lack of policy implementation and use of research findings (269).

Where evidence is lacking, the expertise of clinicians and consumers could be used to develop consensus-based practice guidance. For instance, a “consensus conference” laid the foundation for WHO guidelines on the provision of manual wheelchairs in less-resourced settings. The guidelines were developed in partnership with the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics and the US Agency for International Development (270).

New Zealand's pioneering Autistic Spectrum Disorder Guidelines, developed in response to gaps in service, provide a good example of the evidence-based approach. The guidelines cover identification and diagnosis of conditions, and discuss access to interventions and services (271). A wide range of stakeholders were involved in developing the guidelines, including people with autism, parents of children with autism, medical, educational, and community providers, and researchers from New Zealand and elsewhere, with particular attention to the perspectives and experiences of Māori and Pacific people. As a result of these guidelines, proven programmes have been scaled-up, increasing numbers of people trained in assessment and diagnosis of autism, and increasing numbers of people enquiring about and receiving information on the condition. A range of programmes to help support families of people with disabilities have also been started (272). Guidelines developed for one setting may need adaptation for implementation in another setting.

Research, data, and information

Better data are needed on service provision, service outcomes, and the economic benefits of rehabilitation (273). Evidence for the effectiveness of interventions and programmes is extremely beneficial to:

guide policy-makers in developing appropriate services

allow rehabilitation workers to employ appropriate interventions

support people with disabilities in decision-making.

Long-term longitudinal studies are needed to ascertain if expenditure for health and health-related services decreases if rehabilitation services are provided. Research is also needed on the effect rehabilitation has on families and communities, for example, the benefits accrued when caregivers return to paid work, when support services or ongoing long-term care costs are reduced, and when persons with disabilities and their families feel less isolated. A broad approach is required as benefits of rehabilitation often accrue to a different government budget line from that funding rehabilitation (207).

Relevant strategies for addressing barriers in research include the following:

Involve end-users in planning and research, including people with disabilities and rehabilitation workers, to increase the probability that the research will be useful (269, 274).

Use the ICF framework to help develop a global common language and assist with global comparisons (12, 17).

Use a range of methodologies. More research such as that by the Cochrane Collaboration (Rehabilitation and Related Therapies) (208) is needed when feasible. Alternative, rigorous research methodologies are indicated, including qualitative research, prospective observational cohort design (259), or high-quality, quasi-experimental designs that suit the research questions (265), including research studies on CBR (173).

Systematically disseminate results so that: policy across government reflects research findings, clinical practice can be evidence-based, and people with disabilities and their families can influence the use of research (269).

Enhance the clinical and research environment. Providing international learning and research opportunities will often involve linking universities in developing countries with those in high-income and middle-income countries (68). Countries in a particular region, such as South-East Asia, can also collaborate on research projects (275).

Conclusion and recommendations

The priority is to ensure access to appropriate, timely, affordable, and high-quality rehabilitation interventions, consistent with the CRPD, for all those who need them.

In middle-income and high-income countries with established rehabilitation services, the focus should be on improving efficiency and effectiveness, by expanding the coverage and improving the relevance, quality, and affordability of services.

In lower-income countries the focus should be on introducing and gradually expanding rehabilitation services, prioritizing cost-effective approaches.

A broad range of stakeholders have roles to play:

Governments should develop, implement, and monitor policies, regulatory mechanisms, and standards for rehabilitation services, as well as promoting equal access to those services.

Service providers should provide the highest quality of rehabilitation services.

Other stakeholders (users, professional organizations etc.) should increase awareness, participate in policy development, and monitor implementation.

International cooperation can help share good and promising practices and provide technical assistance to countries that are introducing and expanding rehabilitation services.

Policies and regulatory mechanisms

Assess existing policies, systems, services, and regulatory mechanisms, identifying gaps and priorities to improve provision.

Develop or revise national rehabilitation plans, in accord with situation analysis, to maximize functioning within the population in a financially sustainable manner.

Where policies exist, make the necessary changes to ensure consistency with the CRPD.

Where policies do not exist, develop policies, legislation and regulatory mechanisms coherent with the country context and with the CRPD. Prioritize setting of minimum standards and monitoring.


Develop funding mechanisms to increase coverage and access to affordable rehabilitation services. Depending on each country's specific circumstances, these could include a mix of:

Public funding targeted at persons with disabilities, with priority given to essential elements of rehabilitation including assistive devices and people with disability who cannot afford to pay.

Promoting equitable access to rehabilitation through health insurance.

Expanding social insurance coverage.

Public-private partnership for service provision.

Reallocation and redistribution of existing resources.

Support through international cooperation including in humanitarian crises.

Human resources

Increase the numbers and capacity of human resources for rehabilitation. Relevant strategies include:

Where specialist rehabilitation personnel are in short supply, develop standards in training for different types and levels of rehabilitation personnel that can enable career development and continuing education across levels.

Establish strategies to build training capacity in accord with national rehabilitation plans.

Identify incentives and mechanisms for retaining personnel especially in rural and remote areas.

Train non-specialist health professionals (doctors, nurses, primary care workers) on disability and rehabilitation relevant to their roles and responsibilities.

Service delivery

Where there are none, or only limited, services introduce minimum services within existing health and social service provision. Relevant strategies include:

Developing basic rehabilitation services within the existing health infrastructure.

Strengthening rehabilitation service provision through community-based rehabilitation.

Prioritizing early identification and intervention strategies using community workers and health personnel.

Where services exist, expand service coverage and improve service quality. Relevant strategies include:

Developing models of service provision that encourage multidisciplinary and client-centred approaches.

Ensuring availability of high quality services in the community.

Improving efficiency by improved coordination between levels and across sectors.

In all settings, three principles are relevant:

Include service-users in decision-making.

Base interventions on sound research evidence.

Monitor and evaluate outcomes.


Increase access to assistive technology that is appropriate, sustainable, affordable, and accessible. Relevant strategies include:

Establishing service provision for assistive devices.

Training users and following up.

Promoting local production.

Reducing duty and import tax.

Improving economies of scale based on established need.

To further enhance capacity, accessibility and coordination of rehabilitation measures the use of information and communication technologies - telerehabilitation - can be explored.

Research and evidence-based practice

Increase research and data on needs, type and quality of services provided, and unmet need (disaggregated by sex, age, and associated health condition).

Improve access to evidence-based guidelines on cost-effective rehabilitation measures.

Disaggregate expenditure data on rehabilitation services from other health care services.

Assess the service outcomes and economic benefits of rehabilitation.


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