Less than human rights is not an option for people with disabilities

April 1, 2010

What comes to mind when you hear the word “disability?”  Wheelchairs, canes, Seeing Eye Dogs, handicapped signs, mental illness, deafness… Images and thoughts, more often than not, that imply the person lacks something – is less than a person, even less than human.

Disabilities and human rights
The CRPD helps to ensure that people with disabilities won't be left on the sidelines and forgotten. © Getty

The disabled—correction—persons with disabilities—struggle with stigma and a long history as being objects of pity, ostracized by mainstream society, and seen as needing to be fixed.  And as shocking as it may seem, even in the human rights arena, people with disabilities are often left on the sidelines and forgotten.

Now is the time for a paradigm shift – we need to actively challenge our perceptions of disabilities.  Research tells us that 10% of the world’s population lives with a disability – that’s 650 million people on this planet with a disability!   Yet in many societies, cultural barriers and myths about disabilities don’t allow for basic human rights to be extended to people who are seen as less than human.

A clearer picture emerges when looking at human rights violations through a “disability lens”:

But in December 2006, the balances began to shift in favor of people with disabilities.  The United Nations adopted the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and optional protocols. The CRPD essentially closes the gaps between human rights issues and people with disabilities.

The underlying principle of human rights is that all human beings are equal in dignity and rights and they are entitled to their human rights without distinction of any kind. The CRPD strengthens and reaffirms the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 by utilizing a rights-based approach to disability where limitations on the social and physical environments of people with disabilities are regarded as human rights violations.

The CRPD strengthens other existing international laws. Disabled women and girls are at a higher risk of having their human rights violated. Several studies in the US and in Canada show that women with disabilities are far more likely to experience sexual assault than women without disabilities.  The CRPD also further strengthens the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by specifically recognizing women with disabilities where CEDAW only bears a general application.

The CRPD becomes one more tool for human rights organizations to call on governments to recognize and support people with disabilities who live within their country’s borders.

With 650 million people living with disabilities, this means that roughly 2 billion of us are directly impacted by the presence of a person with disabilities in our daily life.  Whether you are a person with a disability, human rights supporter or development official, you play a role in educating yourself and others about a rights-based approach to understanding disabilities.

Mainstream society bears the true disability in its latent response to this issue, but if we act now, we can create a human rights playing field that also includes (and respects) those who are often treated as less than human.

This post was contributed by K-leigh Shaw.