Founded in 1922, Rehabilitation International (RI Global) is a worldwide organization comprised of people with disabilities, service providers, government agencies, academics, researchers and advocates working to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. With member organizations in more than 100 countries and in all regions of the world, RI Global also provides a forum for the exchange of experience and information on research and practice.

RI History - Kessler

Rehabilitation International grew from its small town roots in the American Midwest championed by Bell Greve, a social worker who instituted relief and rehabilitation services to the disabled after World War I, and Dr. Henry Kessler, an orthopaedic surgeon who established the Kessler Institute in 1949, the first rehabilitation hospital in the U.S. Since then, the RI Global Secretariat in New York has offered expertise and spearheaded legislation aimed at giving people with disabilities the chance to lead full and productive lives. With the Secretariat as its advocate at the United Nations and other global councils, RI Global’s member organizations have an umbrella organization through which they can receive support for their grassroots goals.

Along the way, there have been four major name changes: The International Society for Crippled Children, 1922; The International Society for the Welfare of Cripples, 1939; The International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled, 1960; and Rehabilitation International, 1972. These name changes reflect changing social awareness towards disability. At present, the organization is known around the world by the abbreviation of its 1972 name: RI Global.

RI History - Juan Farrill

RI Global members and RI Global leadership have been key players in various important disability-rights movements throughout history.

Notable Achievements:

  • 1929: Petitioned the League of Nations to establish an office to oversee the collection of disability-related statistics
  • 1961: Established the conceptual basis for community-based rehabilitation
  • 1968: Created the International Symbol of Access
  • 1975: Conducted the first global survey on disability
  • 1978: Setting down a list of policies to govern the use of the International Symbol of Access
  • 1998: Established one of the first self-help groups and micro-credit enterprises for women with disabilities
  • 1999: Presented the Charter for the Third Millennium (in English, Spanish, Portuguese)
  • 2000: Adopted the Beijing Declaration on the Rights of People with Disabilities in the New Millennium
  • 1981-2006: Led the original campaign for the drafting and adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  • 2007: Contributed to legal reform in Mexico and Argentina, granting more adequate government assistance to people with disabilities, including healthcare and pensions


RI Global History

RI Presidents (1922-2020)

1922-1929 Edgar F. Allen, USA

American founder and first president of the National Society for Crippled Children, which became EasterSeals, one of the USA’s largest disability organizations.

1929-1942 Paul H. King, USA

American Attorney who helped pass the Crippled Child’s Bill of Rights in 1931 and establish an International Bureau of Information on Crippled Children.

1942-1948 Dr. Juan Farill, Mexico

Mexican orthopaedic surgeon who was the first chief surgeon of the Mexican Unit of the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children; Frida Kahlo’s surgeon who appeared in her last self-portrait.

1948-1951 Dr. Henry Kessler, USA

American orthopaedic surgeon who founded Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, which prevailed in patient care, community education, research training and international programming for disabled.

1951-1954 Konrad Persson, Sweden

Swedish government official who became one of the founders of the social welfare system.

1954-1957 Dr. Howard Rusk, USA

American founder of the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, New York University Medical Center, later the Rusk Institute; specialized in Polio.

1957-1960 Sir Kenneth Coles, Australia

Australian businessman and philanthropist who, from 1939 to 1969, served as the director of the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children, during a period of remarkable expansion.

1960-1963 Hall H. Popham, Canada

Canadian retail businessman.

1963-1966 Dr. C.W. de Ruijter, Netherlands

Dutch Physician who helped develop Netherlands’ three-part system of residential care and independent living for people with physical disabilities.

1966-1969 Dr. Gudmund Harlem

Norwegian Minister of Defence and Minister of Social Affairs who wrote on the relationship between impairment, disability and dependency

1969-1972 Jean Regniers

Belgian industrialist who helped found a business that not only provided disabled people with jobs, but also integrated them in a profit-making enterprise.

1972-1976 Dr. Kurt-Alphons Jochheim, Germany

German rehabilitation physician and the founding father of integrated medical and socio-occupational rehabilitation.

1976-1980 Kenneth Jenkins, Australia

Australian politician who inspired thousands of people around the world to engage in sustained practical commitment to the interests of people with a disability.

1980-1984 Sir Harry S.Y. Fang, Hong Kong

Hong Kong orthopaedic surgeon who reformed social welfare and rehabilitation services in Hong Kong and who helped establish the the Hong Kong Sports Association for the Physically Disabled.

1984-1988 Dkfm. Otto Geieker, Austria

Austrian diplomat and former deputy general manager or the Austrian Internal Department of Rehabilitation.

1988-1992 Fenmore Seton, USA

American business owner and philanthropist who received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award from President George Bush for his work to help the disabled

1992-1996 John W. Stott, Q.S.O.,New Zealand

Influential leader who received the Queens Service Order for his work on disability rights.

1996-2000 Dr. Arthur O’Reilly, Ireland

Irish doctor who served as the former Director, National Disability Authority of Ireland and advocated for a constitutional amendment to protect the disabled from discrimination.

2000-2004 Lex Frieden, USA

One of the US’s pre-eminent disability activists and leaders of the independent living movement; a major figure behind the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

2004-2008 Michael Fox, Australia

Australian architect and director and Chair of Rights & Inclusion Australia, who was extensively involved in the drafting, adoption and implementation of the UN CRPD.

2008-2012 Anne Hawker, New Zealand

Principal Disability Advisor of the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development.

2012-2016 Jan Monsbakken, Norway

RI People - Monsbakken

Norwegian consultant and government advisor in disabilities for the Norwegian Women’s Public Health Association and the Norwegian Nurses Association.

2016-2020 Haidi Zhang, China

RI People - Haidi Zhang

Renowned author and current Chairperson of the China Disabled Persons Federation and vice chairperson of the Shandong Writers’ Association.