Established in Rome, Italy, in 1951, WFD is an international, non-governmental central organisation of national associations of Deaf people, with a current membership of associations in 127 countries worldwide. Associate members, international members and individual members also make up WFD's membership base. WFD's philosophy is one of equality, human rights and respect for all people, regardless of race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual preference, age and all other differences. WFD supports and promotes in its work the many United Nations conventions on human rights, with a focus on Deaf people who use Sign Language, and their friends and family. WFD works with the aim of solidarity and unity to make the world a better place. WFD has consultative status in the United Nations (UN) system, including the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the International Labour Organization (ILO); and the World Health Organization (WHO). WFD also co-operates closely with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and has representatives on the Panel of Experts of the UN Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. WFD is a member of the International Disability Alliance (IDA).

At present, emphasis is placed on the following areas:
Improving the status of national sign languages
Better education for Deaf people
Improving access to information and services
Improving human rights for Deaf people in developing countries
Promoting the establishment of Deaf organisations where none currently exist

The highest decision making body of WFD is the General Assembly (GA). Every Ordinary Member has the right to send up to two Deaf delegates to attend the GA, held every four years.

The GA is held in conjunction with the quadrennial World Congress of the WFD.

WFD has B-category status with the United Nations and is represented on the following groups:
Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
International Labour Organization (ILO)
World Health Organization (WHO)
Panel of Experts of the UN Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities
WFD provides expert advice on Deaf issues in its relationship with other international organisations and professional groups.

The legal seat of WFD is in Helsinki, Finland.