The CRPD: Briefing for Americas Diplomatist Magazine

August 14, 2009


On the occasion of the United States’ signature to this treaty on July 30, 2009, Americas Diplomatist asked the United States International Council on Disabilities, an advocacy organization addressing disability in U.S. foreign policy, to provide a briefing on the treaty and reflections on the U.S. signature under President Obama.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is a human rights convention intended to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by persons with disabilities.  Seeking to counter the historic invisibility of people with disabilities within the international human rights system, the CRPD was adopted to address established international human rights standards in the context of people with disabilities.  Although the treaty does not create any new or different rights for persons with disabilities under international human rights law, the CRPD does embody a philosophical change in approach to disability.  Specifically, the CRPD is reflective of a paradigm shift from disability as a purely social welfare or health issue, to disability as a human rights issue.

The CRPD was negotiated at the United Nations over the course of four years, and entered into force as the first human rights treaty of the 21st century in March 2007.  Rather uniquely for such an instrument, the CRPD was championed primarily by developing countries, with Mexico leading the charge for the establishment of a negotiations process, and Ecuador first assuming the role of Chair of the General Assembly Ad Hoc Committee under whose auspices the negotiations took place. (New Zealand held the Chair following Ecuador.)  The international drafting process was also notable for the inclusion of people with disabilities on official country delegations and as participants in advocacy groups invited to participate, with a rallying slogan of “Nothing about us, without us.”  Today, over 92% of the world’s population resides in countries that have signed or ratified this treaty.

The CRPD uses a human rights approach to show how societies can remove the societal barriers and prejudices that lead to the exclusion and marginalization of disabled people.  The treaty addresses a number of key areas such as accessibility, personal mobility, education, employment, health and rehabilitation, participation in political life, and equality and non-discrimination.  The CRPD helps to change misperceptions about people with disabilities by embracing diversity, emphasizing the dignity and equality of all persons with disabilities, and recognizing that all people must be provided with the opportunities to live life to their fullest potential, whatever that may be. 

At its core, the CRPD requires States Parties to ensure the enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.  For some countries this will require the introduction of non-discrimination legislation like the historic Americans with Disabilities Act.  Additional measures might include eliminating laws and practices that discriminate against persons with disabilities, and considering persons with disabilities when adopting new policies and programs. Other measures could include making services, goods, and facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.  Mirroring the inclusive negotiations process, the CRPD also requires States Parties to utilize stakeholder input, by actively consulting with people with disabilities and their representative organizations in decision-making processes that affect their lives.

The treaty offers a vision of opportunity: individuals and families affected by disability, so often marginalized or invisible in many settings, have the opportunity to participate in society just as their non-disabled neighbors.  Ensuring that persons with disabilities are able to live up to their potential makes good economic sense.  By removing barriers persons with disabilities are just as able to be employees, employers, entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers as anyone else.  When persons with disabilities are excluded from society, we all lose out on the contributions they would otherwise make. 

In a July 2009 White House ceremony marking the 19th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and seven months into his term, President Barack Obama spoke about opportunity when he announced the United States’ signature to the treaty.  He noted that the Convention is an opportunity for the U.S. to recommit to “building a world free of unnecessary barriers.”  President Obama recognized the status of disabled people around the world, observing that “Today, 650 million people—10% of the world’s population—live with a disability.  In developing countries, 90% of children with disabilities don’t attend school.  Women and girls with disabilities are too often subject to deep discrimination.”  Recounting the story of his father-in-law who lived with Multiple Sclerosis, the President remembered that, “He just wanted to be given the opportunity to do right by his family.”  The President emphasized the core principle that, “Disability rights aren't just civil rights to be enforced here at home; they're universal rights to be recognized and promoted around the world.” 

Joining the President in announcing US signature, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “I am going to make sure that this convention is reflected in our policies around the globe, and to that end I intend to ask our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to make support for people with disabilities a central element in the State Department strategy worldwide, to ensure that we carry out the Obama Administration’s goal of spreading opportunity and standing against injustice whenever and wherever we see it.” 

The United States International Council on Disabilities has received countless emails from our colleagues around the world, praising President Obama’s action and congratulating U.S. disability advocates.  We appreciate all of the messages and are inspired by the global community we join in celebrating the vision and meaning of the CRPD.  We also commend those countries that have already ratified this treaty.  By becoming the 141st country to sign the CRPD, the United States now has the opportunity to once again be a global leader in disability and human rights.  We in the United States are sure to gain valuable insight from those countries that were the frontrunners in the ratification process. We are excited to both learn from and contribute to the global dialogue on one of the most important human rights and development issues of the 21st Century.  We firmly believe this treaty is good for America, good for people with disabilities, and good for the world.

David Morrissey, MPS, is the Executive Director of USICD.  Katherine Guernsey, JD, L.LM, is the Director of Education and Outreach of USICD.