The objective of the law for disabled persons is to ensure that persons with disabilities are entitled to exercise their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights on an equal basis with others. The term “disability” includes a great number of different functional limitations occurring in any population in any country of the world. People may be disabled by physical, intellectual or sensory impairment, medical conditions or mental illness. Such impairments, conditions or illnesses may be permanent or transitory in nature.”
The UN estimates that there are 500 million persons with disabilities in the world today. This number is increasing every year due to factors such as war and destruction, unhealthy living conditions, or the absence of knowledge about disability, its causes, prevention and treatment.
Among persons with disabilities, the following form particularly vulnerable groups that face discrimination based on two grounds: women, children, elders, victims of torture, refugees and displaced persons, and migrant workers. For instance, women with a disability are discriminated against because of their gender and also because of their disability.
Persons with disabilities suffer from discrimination based on society’s prejudice and ignorance. In addition, they often do not enjoy the same opportunities as other people because of the lack of access to essential services.
International human rights law determines that every person has:
1. The right of equality before law
2. The right to non discrimination
3. The right to equal opportunity
4. The right to independent living
5. The right to full integration
6. The right to security
Policy regarding disabilities is often dominated by the notion of “equalization of opportunities”, which means that society must employ its resources in such a way that every individual, including persons with disabilities, has an equal opportunity to participate in society.
The UN undertakes important decisions and actions in the area of disability. Based on the International Bill of Rights, the UN formulated the first specific document regarding disabilities in 1971 in the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons. In 1981, the General Assembly declared the first International Year of Disabled Persons. It was followed by the World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons in 1982 and the Decade of Disabled Persons 1983-1992. Throughout the 1990s all UN conferences dealt with disability rights and addressed the need for protective instruments (World Conference on Human Rights 1993, Fourth World Conference on Women 1995, Habitat II 1996).
The following international instruments protect the rights of persons with disabilities. They mainly focus on protecting disabled persons from discrimination and creating equal opportunities for them to participate in society:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (article 3, 21, 23, 25)- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 and provides human rights standards accepted by all member states. The UDHR represents the normative basis that led to formulating the standards concerning persons with disabilities that exist today. In Article 25 (1) the UDHR specifically mentions the socio-economic rights of people with disabilities: the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age. Article 7 guarantees equality before the law and equal protection by the law for all people, including against discrimination.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (article 26) – This treaty lists several rights that are relevant to disability. Article 26 states that all people are equal before the law and have the right to equal protection of the law.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (article 2) – The Covenant does not explicit refer to disability. However, disability can be included under “other status” in article 2 (2), which calls for non-discrimination on any grounds such as race and color, and “other status”.
Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons (1971)- This declaration was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly and states that: “The mentally retarded person has, to the maximum degree of feasibility, the same rights as other human beings.”
Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975)- This declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly is the first international document that tried to define the term “disability.” The Declaration includes a number of social and economic rights as well as civil and political rights.
Declaration on the Rights of Deaf-Blind Persons (1979)- Article 1 of the Declaration states that “…every deaf-blind person is entitled to enjoy the universal rights that are guaranteed to all people by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights provided for all disabled persons by the Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons.”
Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979) (article 3)- The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, usually abbreviated as CEDAW, does not include any specific article on disability rights, but aims to protect the rights of all women, whether disabled or not. Disabled women face double discrimination based on their gender and secondly, on their disability. In General Recommendation 18 the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the monitoring body of the CEDAW convention, stresses that disabled women suffer from double discrimination and are a particularly vulnerable group. It recommends that governments provide information on disabled women in their period reports and on special measures that governments have taken to ensure that women with disabilities “have equal access to education and employment, health services and social security, and to ensure that they can participate in all areas of social and cultural life.”
A major outcome of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) was the formulation of the World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons (WPA) (1982). The WPA is a global strategy to enhance disability prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities, which pertains to full participation of persons with disabilities in social life and national development. The WPA also emphasizes the need to approach disability from a human rights perspective.
Convention (No. 159) concerning Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Disabled Persons) (1983)- This treaty of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN specialized agency, obligates states to “formulate, implement and periodically review a national policy on vocational rehabilitation and employment of disabled persons” (article 2). This treaty also emphasizes the principle of equal opportunity: “positive measures aimed at effective equality of opportunity and treatment between disabled workers and other workers shall not be regarded as discriminating against other workers” (article 4).
Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) (article 2, 6, 12, 23, 28)- This treaty lists disability as one of the grounds discrimination is prohibited on (article 2). In addition, article 23 directly addresses the rights of children with disabilities stating that disabled children are entitled to a “full and decent life” of dignity and participation in the community.
Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illnesses and the Improvement of Mental Health Care (1991)- This document adopted by the UN General Assembly sets detailed standards for the protection of persons with mental disabilities. It emphasizes that all persons have the right to the best available mental health care and that persons with a mental illness shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. Individuals with mental disabilities also have the right to protection from economic, sexual and other forms of exploitation, physical or other abuse and degrading treatment. The Principles stipulate that there shall be no discrimination on the grounds of mental illness and that persons with a mental illness shall have the right to exercise all civil, political. In case a person lacks legal capacity due to his or her mental illness any decisions related to the well-being of this person shall be made only after a fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal established by domestic law.
Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (1993)- Adopted by the General Assembly in 1993 in the aftermath of the Decade of Disabled Persons, the Standard Rules do not constitute a legally binding document for member states. However the Standard Rules are the most comprehensive set of human rights standards regarding disability police to date and represent “a strong moral and political commitment of Governments to take action to attain equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities.” The document addresses preconditions for equal participation, target areas of equal participation, implementation measures and monitoring mechanisms.
Beijing Declaration on the Rights of People with Disabilities (2000)- This declaration was adopted at the World NGO Summit on Disability and calls for a higher standard of living, equal participation and the elimination of discriminatory attitudes and practices.
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007)- This treaty was recently adopted and entered into force in May 2008.
In the United States, civil rights law regarding persons with disabilities is based on a number of laws among which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most important one. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. Examples of further national legislation are the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act.