Building on the Last Ten Years of the CRPD: A Road Map for the Future

By Brent Elder and Michael Schwartz

An aging woman, hands rough from a post-polio life spent pulling herself around on the earthen floor of her roadside store in western Kenya, has no government assistance by which to achieve an education or gainful employment. She and her family live at the intersection of disability, gender, poverty, and Western capitalism. 

A Deaf motorist in Northern Ireland needs automobile insurance, but the insurance company refuses to provide the consumer with a sign language interpreter, diminishing his ability to purchase appropriate insurance. 

Children with disabilities in Vietnam struggle with far less resources than made available to non-disabled children. The stigma and shame of disability felt by families of people with disabilities drives the disabled underground and out of sight. 

Multiply these stories by over one billion, and you gain an understanding of why the United Nations General Assembly’s unanimous adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on December 13, 2006, constituted a momentous acceptance of the concept of disability rights as human rights. The CRPD marks the first participatory UN treaty where the target audience - Disabled People’s Organizations and people with disabilities - weighed in on the drafting of the instrument. In March 2007, the treaty opened for signatures, and when it went into force in May 2008, it made history receiving the most number of signatories of any UN convention on opening day. 

B.C.- Before the Convention

For thousands of years, people with disabilities were at a great disadvantage compared with their non-disabled peers. Life was short and brutish, and if not born with a disability, a human being ran a high risk of acquiring a disability through age, illness, accident or intentional act by someone else (e.g., assault, abuse, war). As humankind evolved over the centuries, disability, too, evolved - from early death or incapacity from to exposure to harsh living conditions, to asylums, then to group homes (for some), and community inclusion (if you’re lucky). The dawn of Disability Enlightenment was born of war - World War II - after which thousands of American servicemen returned, many with disabilities. They demanded accessible services, and the disability rights movement in the United States was born. Out of the caldron of the civil rights movement arose a disability rights movement inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, Jane Addams, Judy Heumann and others. This revolution spread worldwide, fired up by the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)- equality and inclusion. The ADA paved the way for the idea of an international treaty dealing with disability rights as human rights. 

A.C.- After the Convention

As of October 31, 2016, 167 countries ratified/acceded to the CRPD, and 160 countries are signatories. Ninety one countries ratified/acceded to the Optional Protocol of the Convention, and 92 are signatories to the Optional Protocol which provides an enforcement mechanism for the Convention. December 13, 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of the CRPD. 

It is time to take stock.

As outlined by Article 1, “The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” This foundation of the CRPD ensures access for people with disabilities to justice, health, employment, education, equality, liberty of movement, freedom of expression, and an adequate standard of living (see for the CRPD in full). 

The focus of the last ten years has been on ratifying the CRPD and its Optional Protocol (see The focus of the next ten years is to provide governments, NGOs and people with disabilities with the resources to effectuate inclusion, equality and law reform. While ratification of the CRPD has been a success, for many countries, ratification has been symbolic because it is difficult to mobilize resources in low-income nations battered by decades, even centuries, of rapacious capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, that has left their treasuries depleted. Where the rubber meets the proverbial road is to develop sustainable projects that uphold the articles of the Convention in ways that include people with disabilities, value local ways of knowing, and positively impact local communities. That is the challenge of the next 10 years of the CRPD. 

With unprecedented numbers of displaced persons being forced from their homes due to war, persecution, and scarce resources, many of these refugees acquire disabilities (both visible and invisible). With people around the world being subjected to neoliberal education practices resulting in high-stakes competition for jobs, unemployment rates are high in developing countries. Unemployment leads to impoverished living conditions which begets disability. 

We must recognize the interconnected nature of our lives in our increasingly globalized world. To do this means acknowledging the more than one billion people with disabilities around the globe, the world’s largest minority, as people who deserve lives equal to their non-disabled counterparts. The next 10 years will be crucial as State Parties work to get the resources necessary for implementation of the CRPD. The last 50-odd years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 teaches us that enforcement of  the CRPD is a work in progress with the arc of justice extending upward and onward. 

What can you do to support the implementation of the CRPD? Click the following links that highlight and promote disability rights and the CRPD around the world:
●    USCID
●    US State Department
●    Human Rights. Yes!
●    WHO
●    Implementation Toolkit
●    Ratification Toolkit