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The Disability Portal

symbols for someone sitting in a wheelchair, a brain, sign language and someone walking with a (possibly white) stick

Disability, according to the World Health Organization, is defined as "...an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives."

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Photo of a boy with Down syndrome using an electric drill to assemble a bookcase
Boy with Down syndrome assembling a bookcase

Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder caused by the presence of all or part of an extra 21st chromosome. It is named after John Langdon Down, the British physician who described the syndrome in 1866. The disorder was identified as a chromosome 21 trisomy by Jérôme Lejeune in 1959. The condition is characterized by a combination of major and minor differences in structure. Often Down syndrome is associated with some impairment of cognitive ability and physical growth, and a particular set of facial characteristics. Down syndrome in a fetus can be identified with amniocentesis during pregnancy, or in a baby at birth.

Individuals with Down syndrome tend to have a lower-than-average cognitive ability, often ranging from mild to moderate disabilities. A small number have severe to profound mental disability. The average IQ of children with Down syndrome is around 50, compared to normal children with an IQ of 100. The incidence of Down syndrome is estimated at 1 per 800 to 1,000 births, although it is statistically much more common with older mothers. Other factors may also play a role. Many of the common physical features of Down syndrome may also appear in people with a standard set of chromosomes. Health concerns for individuals with Down syndrome include a higher risk for congenital heart defects, gastroesophageal reflux disease, recurrent ear infections, obstructive sleep apnea, and thyroid dysfunctions.

Early childhood intervention, screening for common problems, medical treatment where indicated, a conducive family environment, and vocational training can improve the overall development of children with Down syndrome. Although some of the physical genetic limitations cannot be overcome, education and proper care will improve quality of life.

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 WWI amputees at Walter Reed Hospital
American soldiers who lost limbs during a World War I battle. They were recovering at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. 1918. Photo credit: Harris & Ewing.

Selected biography

Vergeer playing a right hand forehand tennis stroke while seated in her wheelchair
Esther Vergeer

Esther Vergeer is a Dutch wheelchair tennis player. She is five-time Paralympics tennis champion, eleven-time consecutive world-champion (i.e. winner of the NEC Masters tournament), and has been the world's top ranked player since 1999. Unbeaten in singles matches since January 2003, she may be the most dominant player in any professional sport. Vergeer also played wheelchair basketball before she took up tennis fulltime.

Vergeer developed paraplegia when she was 8 years old due to otherwise successful, very risky surgery on hemorrhaging blood vessels around her spinal cord. During rehabilitation she learned to play volleyball, basketball, and tennis in a wheelchair. After playing basketball for several years at club level, she was invited to join the national wheelchair basketball team. She played with the Dutch team that won the European championship in 1997.


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The Disability WikiProject is a project that helps to assemble writers and editors interested in Disability related articles. The aim of this project is to co-ordinate the improvement and creation of articles.

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