Disability is part of a human condition that can be experienced by any person at some point in life, temporarily or permanently. It is an umbrella term covering various types of physical impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. A person can be considered to have a disability if and when his/her performance during activities is limited in nature, function, or quality. This might include physical or intellectual disability or limitation in performing activities or roles expected of individuals within their usual environment. Hence, the issue of disability consistently relates to human dignity and inclusion in society.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank (WB) estimated that around 1 billion (15%) of the global population currently live with some form of disability, and about 80% of them live in developing countries where rehabilitation services are poor or non-existent. These numbers are increasing due to population growth, man-made and natural disasters, war, accidents and ageing.
Information pertaining to the proportion of persons with disabilities (PwDs) in Ethiopia is highly fragmented or sometimes misleading and contradictory. For example, based on the 2007 Population and Housing Census, Ethiopian Central Statistical Authority (2007) reported that there were less than 1 million Ethiopians with some form of disability i.e. 1.2% . Conversely, WHO’s World Disability Report (2011) indicates that the national prevalence of disability in Ethiopia is around 17% .
Despite inconsistencies and contradictions in the literature and reports on disability information and statistics in Ethiopia, mobility, visual and hearing impairment have been reported as the top-three most prevalent forms of disabilities, in that order . This prevalence has also been reported to be the same in North Gondar Administrative Zone of the Amhara National Regional State (ANRS), Ethiopia [6, 7].
Promoting inclusive and sustainable development requires removing the barriers to PwDs’ inclusion and participation in their community’ lives. PwDs should be able to enjoy equal opportunities to schooling and employment as well as access to health and other services. In recent years, national and global actors have pushed the issue of disability to the center and front of policies, programing and service provision to ensure that PwDs enjoy the same rights and access to opportunities as other citizens [8–10].
The causes and impacts of disability are numerous and complex. However, it is evident that the major causes of disability in Africa are communicable diseases, war, accidents, and inadequate prenatal and neonatal health care services. Studies on the continent have now established that many cases of disabilities are strongly linked to poverty, poor nutrition and restricted access to basic services such as health and schooling . These factors are also relevant to the Ethiopian context where the list of causes/factors include low standard of living, malnutrition, natural and man-made disasters, accidents, infectious and non-infectious diseases, intermittent wars and violence [6, 11].
Negative attitude towards and stereotyping of PwDs have dealt huge blows to their self-esteem and social participation, which increase their dependency and societal exclusion . But PwDs do not make up a homogenous group. PwDs constitutes women, children, illiterates, unemployed, etc. and their experiences could be decidedly unique. This implies that community attitude towards disability significantly relies on and varies by disability type, age, gender, level of education, and employment status of PwDs . In Ethiopia, about 46% of PwDs are women  and they, for instance, carry the double burden of stereotypes, discrimination and economic challenges associated with being women and person with disability. Age is also a factor whereby children with disabilities (CwDs) are less likely to attend schooling or access healthcare services leaving them vulnerable to poverty and poor health that substantially reduce their quality of life [15, 16]. As a group, without underplaying variations within, PwDs are still among the most disadvantaged segment of the society.
With new and emerging man-made and natural disability-risk factors associated with growing interconnections and communications that connect the local with the global, proactive measures such as disability surveillance is necessary to track and examine trends over time about the conditions of PwDs to inform relevant policy decisions and delivery of social- and healthcare- services. Disability surveillance is a useful mechanism to collect and provide empirical and reliable data to identify needs, set priorities, allocate resources and design effective interventions to meet the challenges of PwDs. By doing so, it will contribute to bridging the existing knowledge gap on disability – its magnitude, types, effects, trends, etc. – in Ethiopia.
Researches have documented the complicated relationship between disability and its social and health outcomes, and how the provision of long-term everyday care for PwDs is becoming a major public health problem especially for developing countries where resources, qualified personnel and rehabilitation centers and services are very limited. It is against this backdrop that University of Gondar (UoG) launched the Dabat Health Surveillance System (DHSS) in 1995 to collect, organized and disseminate regular and up-to-date information on the health conditions of the population (including PwDs) in Dabat district. This article is based on the analysis and interpretation of data gathered from households covered in DHSS longitudinal study to assess the prevalence, types, distribution, and associated factors of disability in Dabat district.