Raising the Profile of Disability Rights: Obstacles and Opportunities

by Sarah Amin and Rachel Garaghty

When the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) opened for signature on March 30, 2007, it received a record-breaking eighty-two signatures, the highest of any UN Convention on its opening day. This initial overwhelming support suggests that member states understood early on that it was not just another treaty. However, while the CRPD is a groundbreaking assertion of human freedom that holds important implications for international development, practitioners have been slow to apply its tenets to economic development, democratic governance, and peace and security policies.

The CRPD affirms the fundamental rights of people with disabilities who now represent the world’s largest minority, totaling more than one billion people. It creates space in the field of international development to examine disability beyond the traditional domestic spheres of health and welfare to the systematic oppression and exclusion experienced by this community globally. Because it expands upon the significant elements of other key human rights treaties (e.g. CERDCEDAW, and CRC), the CRPD also provides a rich, intersecting, and dynamic body of rights unique among the existing collection of rights treaties. As such, it can be accessed and applied as a model across multiple international development sectors.

The CRPD in Democratic Governance

The CRPD provides for persons with disabilities to effectively participate in public and political life by including the right to form civil society organizations at the local, national, and global levels. The active participation of disabled persons can broaden public space, expand the scope of democratic institutions, and encourage vigorous debate among political groups to serve a more diverse constituency. Disability can be leveraged as a unifying issue to soften discord among polarized communities because it cuts across ethnic, economic, religious, and geographic borders and is often regarded as politically neutral ground. Recognizing this opportunity for cohesion, democracy practitioners can empower disability organizations to mobilize as agents of change within their wider communities. Long perceived as deserving recipients of protection, the participation of disabled individuals as decision-makers will re-conceptualize them as drivers of democracy, rather than passive subjects of niche welfare policies.

The CRPD in Economic Development

The CRPD states that international cooperation, particularly international development efforts, should be fully inclusive of people with disabilities. Yet, the field of international economic development and poverty alleviation has consistently overlooked disability, grimly evidenced by the Millennium Development Goals’ complete failure to address it. The post-2015 development agenda  provides the opportunity to reverse this cycle of exclusion with a renewed focus on the most marginalized groups as key to achieving sustainable development.

Once social and economic barriers are removed, people with disabilities possess the innate capacity to become drivers of economic growth and development. The success of gender inclusion in poverty reduction strategies can serve as a strong model in this regard. The true test, however, lies in whether or not the international development community, including practitioners, policymakers, and economists, will recognize people with disabilities as crucial stakeholders in all aspects of development.

The CRPD in Peace, Security, and Emergencies

Survivors of violent conflicts are disproportionately affected by disabilities from combat-related physical and psychological traumas. Additionally, people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable populations in emergencies, such as armed conflict and natural disasters. In countries that have experienced long-term violent conflict, such as Sierra Leone, large segments of the population may experience disability, while countries with large refugee populations, such as Uganda, lack the means to identify or serve disabled refugees.

Despite these alarming trends, people with disabilities remain on the periphery in the fields of humanitarian relief and post-conflict reconstruction. The CRPD mandates the inclusion of people with disabilities in responses to situations of risk and humanitarian emergency, including conflict, and affirms their right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. Now, as the international community grapples with intra-state violence such as the prolonged conflict in Syria, natural disasters brought about by climate change, and the demands of reconstruction in post-conflict states, addressing and engaging survivors with disabilities will be essential to sustainable peace and security.

Obstacles in the United States

It is time for practitioners and policymakers to recognize the immeasurable value that the CRPD holds as an innovative international legal instrument. Although President Obama signed the CRPD in July 2009, Congress has yet to ratify it. As is characteristic within the American debate over the country’s proper relationship with international governing institutions, the loudest voices among the opposition argued along the vein of isolationism, warning that ratification would weaken sovereignty and relinquish governing power to the UN. The treaty was defeated in the Senate on December 4, 2012, in spite of the fact that the U.S. government has been a global leader in the promotion of disability rights and played a key role in shaping the CRPD. We, the authors, believe that international development practitioners in the U.S. have an important role to play in supporting ratification of this crucial treaty.

We strongly recommend that development practitioners raise the profile of disability in their work, research, and advocacy. Specifically, we encourage practitioners to engage people with disabilities in the United States and abroad and to push hard for disability inclusion at all levels of project development, implementation, and evaluation. Finally, we call on practitioners to support U.S. ratification of the CRPD as a crucial international development and human rights tool. We believe that the recognition of disability as an important international issue will reinvigorate the debate among policymakers on the significance and true spirit of the treaty. It is high time that we, as development practitioners, support the disability community on its path to self-empowerment.

About the Author

Sarah Amin is a research associate at the International Forum for Democratic Studies, at the National Endowment for Democracy, a foundation dedicated to strengthening democratic institutions worldwide. She received her M.A. in International Relations from the School of International Service, American University, where she developed her interest in disability, democratic governance, and inclusive development. Rachel Garaghty is a Development Officer for Perkins International, a global leader in promoting access to education for people with disabilities. She received her M.P.P. from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where she specialized in disability and international development.

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