Co-authored by Michael Ashley Stein, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Harvard Law School Project on Disability, and Aleta Sprague, Senior Legal Analyst, WORLD Policy Analysis Center
Ten years ago this month, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD) – a landmark human rights treaty that represented a “paradigm shift” for the global community. Following a history of ignoring their rights, the CRPD embodied a new and long overdue recognition that people with disabilities must be able to “claim [their] rights as active members of society,” and that governments must respect and enforce those rights. The CRPD formalized this through a comprehensive set of commitments that include non-discrimination, inclusive education, and strengthening access to employment, healthcare, and political participation.
Since 2006, the CRPD has become one of the most quickly ratified treaties in history, and today boasts 168 states parties (although the U.S. is not yet among them). Yet on its tenth anniversary, substantial barriers remain to the full inclusion of the more than one billion people worldwide—15% of the global population—who live with some form of disability. As the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs stated ten years ago, “the measure of the Convention’s success will be precisely in the changes in the lives of persons with disabilities in their national contexts.” What will it take to accelerate progress?
The disadvantages linked to disability start early. Children with disabilities are less likely to get an education, while girls with disabilities face even greater odds. In Indonesia, for example, only 29% of children with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 11 attend school, compared to 89% of children without disabilities in the same age group. Beyond denying children a fundamental right, these early inequalities contribute to barriers to work later in life. Around the world, adults with disabilities remain far less likely to have a job, despite a well-documented desire and capacity to contribute to the workforce.
Disability is also often linked to poverty, though this association is not inevitable. Governments’ policy choices around health, work, and income security, along with their ability to adequately invest in these areas, can make a critical difference. Due to insufficient access to healthcare, unsafe living conditions, and lower resources, people in poverty often face a higher risk of developing a disability—and having a disability increases the risk of poverty where work opportunities and social insurance are inadequate. Further, poverty can make existing disabilities worse, due to unmet needs for care and rehabilitation. This helps explain why as many as 4 out of 5 people with disabilities live in low-income countries, often in isolated, rural areas. Yet the disparities persist even in wealthy nations, especially those with less generous social safety nets. In the United States, nearly 29% of people with disabilities live below the poverty line—over twice the overall poverty rate.
Over the past few decades, stronger legal protections have played a critical role in advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, and in supplanting the outdated “medical model,” which frames people with disabilities as deficient or ill, and therefore unable to be fully involved in their communities, with the “social model,” which focuses on socially constructed barriers to the full participation of people with disabilities in society. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was a prime example. The ADA was premised on the idea that institutions and practices must be designed to facilitate access and inclusion and has in fact been transformational when it comes to improving access to places of public accommodation and lowering barriers to social participation. Since the ADA was enacted in 1990, numerous countries have adopted similar legislation.
Yet major legal gaps remain. Around the world, people with disabilities rarely benefit from explicit protections of their rights in their countries’ constitutions, especially when compared with constitutional protections for other historically marginalized groups. As of 2014, only 24% of constitutions specifically prohibited discrimination or guaranteed equal rights on the basis of disability, compared to three times as many constitutions that do so on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and religion.
Likewise, only 18% of countries constitutionally protect the right to work for people with disabilities, while 28% protect the right to education for children with disabilities. Similarly, 26% of constitutions explicitly guarantee the right to health for people with disabilities.
Constitutional rights for people with disabilities are more than just words. In recent years, these provisions have provided the foundation for vindicating the right to education for a child with autism, after he had been turned away from twelve public schools in the Czech Republic; for striking down a discriminatory job posting by a hotel in Mexico; and for ensuring that deaf patients in Canadian hospitals are guaranteed access to an interpreter. While complementary legislation and a strong social safety net are also critical, constitutional rights can have a profound and practical impact on people’s daily lives and opportunities—while sending a critical message about the state’s commitment to inclusion.
The good news is these rights are becoming more common; among constitutions adopted since 2010, 68% prohibit discrimination based on disability, while 58% guarantee the right to work for adults with disabilities and 63% guarantee the right to education for children with disabilities.
The CPRD was remarkable not just because of the paradigm shift it represented, but also because of the deep involvement of civil society and people with disabilities in moving it forward. In the decades to come, these groups will undoubtedly continue to be the driving force behind the disability rights movement. Yet to realize the CRPD’s transformative potential, governments must also do their part—and it starts with the law.