This paper summarises the findings of an empirical investigation of some of the technical and social assumptions on which the disability adjusted life year (DALY) is based. The objectives of the study were to examine the notion that the burden of disease is broadly similar without regard to country, environment, gender or socio-economic status and to develop detailed descriptions of the experiences of the burden of disease as they related to these contextual factors. The study was a multi-factorial exploratory study employing qualitative and quantitative techniques to obtain data on the effects of country (development), environment (urban versus rural), gender and socio-economic status on people with paraplegia. The data provided an extensive and detailed compilation of context rich descriptions of living with paraplegia. Striking features of the data were the differences between countries with respect to the impact of the health conditions on functioning and highlight a context in which paraplegia of like clinical severity can be fatal in one environment and not in another. While there has been some focus on the control of social determinants of disease, there has been little work on the social determinants of the severity of disease. The underlying assumptions of the DALY, which ignore context in the assessment of the burden of disease, risk exacerbating inequalities by undervaluing the burden of disease in less-developed countries. There is a need to continue to subject the development of indicators to rigorous debate to determine a balance between the assumption of a global "average social milieu" and the treatment of each individual as belonging to their own context in the assessment of population health in order for indicators to be meaningful cross-culturally.