Judith Heumann, an internationally recognised leader in the disability community, told the congress that physiotherapists should focus less on curing disabled people, and more on collaborating with them and helping them towards their aspirations.
'The role of therapists needs to move towards engaging more with the views of the disability rights movement in your countries, and through your international organisation looking at how you can support their efforts around the world,' she said.
Ms Heumann's talk to congress drew on her personal experience of being largely in hospital because of polio up until the age of four, and having benefited greatly from the help of physiotherapists in her childhood.
She said that since then it has been increasingly recognised that disabled people have an important role to play in society, and the world has begun to move from a medical model to a social model. Organisations of disabled people have had a major political influence, but the changes achieved were still not dramatic enough.
'As long as people see us as objects of pity, it's going to be difficult for the role you play as therapists to come to fruition as well,' she said.
'I believe you are in this profession to help disabled people to regain what they did previously, and play an important role in their communities. But if someone's status falls when you acquire a disability, the role you play is also diminished. So what you do together is increasingly important.'
She drew attention to the Centres for Independent Living movement as an indication of how people with disabilities were working with communities so that they could be full participants.
In Pakistan, a project called Milestone had so successfully helped people with disabilities, as well as help reconstruction after the recent earthquake, that 40 new centres are now being planned for the country.