Available translations: English العربيّة

Disability and human rights: A new perspective

Graphic: Female trainee graduates from an ILO-sponsored program for women and people with disabilities

  1. People with disabilities do not claim ‘special rights’ or even ‘disability rights’. They claim the same fundamental human rights as everyone else.
  2. A human rights understanding of disability turns the focus away from a person’s impairment and identifies the social and attitudinal barriers that prevent people with disabilities from enjoying their fundamental human rights.
  3. NHRIs can and should be natural champions for this new understanding of disability, which is the also the foundation of the Convention.

Our understanding of disability, and the rights of people with disabilities, has evolved significantly over the past thirty years.

As the preamble to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states:

[D]isability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

In other words, the barriers to equality that people with disabilities face are a result of negative or 'disabling' community attitudes and 'disabling' social environments that, because of their impairments, they struggle to access or navigate.

Promoting and protecting the rights of people with disabilities involves identifying and removing the social and attitudinal barriers that prevent persons with disabilities enjoying their basic human rights, on the same basis as others.

The Convention puts the focus firmly on the dignity of the person, and not on her or his disability or impairment. This is the 'human rights model' of disability.


Graphic: Representative of Samoa's NHRI with a group of people with disabilities


No longer 'objects' of pity

In the past, people with disabilities were seen as 'objects' of pity to be managed or cared for. The 'medical model' of disability centred on the idea that a person's impairment was the primary issue that required attention, not the person behind the impairment.

While the broad intention of this approach was to care for people with disabilities, it actually served to isolate them by separating them from the community.

It was also underpinned by the expectation that people with disabilities could not and should not take part in mainstream community life and activities.

The result was laws and policies that locked people with disabilities out of all aspects of community life, from education and employment to sport and social and cultural activities.

Seeing the person, not the disability

The Convention has great symbolic importance because it endorses and affirms the human rights model of disability, something that civil society has long called for.

But the impact is more than just symbolic. By looking beyond a person's impairment to focus on the countless barriers that they face because of their impairment, the Convention sets out clear steps that States can take to address those barriers and deliver genuine change.

People with disabilities do not claim 'special rights' or even 'disability rights'. They claim the same fundamental human rights as everyone else.

This is why the Convention does not create any 'new' rights. Instead, it sets out a comprehensive strategy to make existing human rights – the rights that belong to all of us – real and meaningful in the daily lives of people with disabilities.

The overarching goal of the Convention is to ensure equality and non-discrimination in the realisation of these rights.


Two workers with disabilities show off their livestock, Vietnam

The move to the 'human rights model' of disability requires a fundamental change in how we think about disability.


Applying our new understanding of disability

While the impact of impairments or health conditions on the functional capacities of individuals is not denied, the problems that people with disabilities face are located elsewhere.

An important starting point is to review and assess how disability is framed in law, in public policy and in community attitudes. This helps to clarify the key barriers that people with disabilities face and what legislators, bureaucrats, service providers and others can do to address those barriers.

Of course, the daily reality for most people with disabilities is still a long way removed from the vision set out in the Convention. The legacy of the past will not be easily erased.

That is why national human rights institutions (NHRIs) should be natural champions for this new framing of disability. They have a critically important role to play in promoting and popularising this shift in how we understand and respond to disability.

This is vital as the human rights model of disability is still not widely understood.

From a very practical point of view, a commitment to the human rights model of disability can assist NHRIs in deciding which strategy to follow, what to prioritise and how to ensure that their work complements the efforts of people with disabilities and their representative organisations.



Image credits

  1. Female trainee graduates from an ILO-sponsored program for women and people with disabilities - ILO/Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh, Flickr; http://bit.ly/2GXHH8g
  2. Representative of Samoa's NHRI with a group of people with disabilities - Office of the Ombudsman of Samoa
  3. Two workers with disabilities show off their livestock, Vietnam - ILO in Asia and the Pacifiic/Nguyen A, Flickr; http://bit.ly/2L44ZvC