According to the latest statistics provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, one billion individuals in the world today live with disabilities. People with disabilities today make up one-fifth of the population in the United States and cut across multiple lines of identity including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and age.
As yet, however, no definition of disability has achieved international consensus. Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD, 2008) explains the concept of disability as follows:
Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The adoption of the CPRD in 2008 provided a human rights-based approach to disability that:
- Identifies persons with disabilities as rights holders and subjects of human rights law on an equal basis with all persons;
- Recognizes and respects a person’s disability as an element of natural human diversity, on the same basis as race or gender, and addresses the disability-specific prejudices, attitudes, and other barriers to the enjoyment of human rights; and
- Places the responsibility on society and governments for ensuring that the political, legal, social, and physical environments support the human rights and full inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities.
In addition the CRPD addresses aspects of rights with particular reference to people with disabilities:
- Dignity, Autonomy, and Choice: CRPD Article 25, Health, guarantees people with disabilities the highest attainable standard of health and establishes that health care must reflect principles of dignity, respect, choice of medical services, and facilitate the autonomy of persons with disabilities.
- Non-discrimination: CRPD Article 28, Adequate Standard of Living and Social Protection, states that persons with disabilities may not be barred from public housing on the basis of disability.
- Participation and Inclusion: CRPD Article 30, Participation in Cultural Life, Recreation, Leisure and Sport, ensures that persons with disabilities are included, for example, in formulating policies that concern them.
- Respect for Difference: In implementing CRPD Article 8, Awareness-raising, disability awareness campaigns may emphasize pride in and respect for difference as a natural part of human diversity.
- Equality of Opportunity: CRPD Article 27, Work and Employment, requires measures to ensure equality of opportunity be provided, for example, provisions to ensure that recruitment processes are truly open to applicants with disabilities.
- Accessibility: CRPD Article 29, Participation in Political and Public Life, establishes that measures must be undertaken to ensure accessibility to voting materials for persons with disabilities.
Despite these guarantees persons with disabilities continue to face social, legal, and practical barriers in claiming their human rights, many of them based on attitudes, misunderstandings, and lack of awareness. For example, the misconception that persons with disabilities cannot be productive members of the workforce might lead employers to discriminate against disabled job applicants, or it might mean that facilities where jobs are located are inaccessible to persons with physical disabilities.
Changing understandings of disability
Understanding of the rights of persons with disabilities has changed over time. Traditionally disability was seen as a medical problem that needs to be “fixed” or “cured.” Another misconception of disability regards persons with disabilities as objects of pity and charity, helpless dependents unable to live independently. As passive recipients of social welfare, they are sometimes considered a burden on family and society instead of contributing members in their community. Such giver-taker approaches have long dominated legislative frameworks and policy, and unless restricted will continue to foster negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities.
A rights approach to disability focuses on eliminating the barriers created by the social and physical environment that inhibit the ability of persons with disabilities to exercise their human rights. In strengthening human rights protections for persons with disabilities, the human rights of all persons are made stronger.