CRPD: On the Right Side of History

Article #1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) starts: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". Article #2 begins "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind..". The inherent dignity, equality and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, including persons with disabilities, is recognized in this document.

But what does that mean if you happen to be blind, use a wheelchair or need a wheelchair that you don't have? How does equal access to medical care, schools or the justice of the court translate when your first language is American Sign Language?

Unfortunately, for a billion people worldwide who happen to experience disability, barriers prevent their full enjoyment of these rights and freedoms. How frustrating is it to experience, day to day, barriers to education, employment, social inclusion.. and lack the voice to express this frustration and collaborate on solutions? have doctors and institutions speak for you while trapped in the medical model of disability? have governments and charities interpret your needs because the barriers of society inhibit your own voice?

"Sometimes equality means treating people the same despite their differences, and sometimes it means treating them as equals by accommodating their differences" - Judge Rosalie Abella

In 2006, much of this changed. The work of many, many people with disabilities from all over the world, working over a long period of time, resulted in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Rather than having to depend on others with only a course understanding and blunt tools to speak on their behalf, individuals with disabilities came together to draft for themselves how human rights and freedoms appear when applied to them - with the nuance and sensitivity necessary to articulate the sometimes subtle meaning of those rights when applied to their own community. To a person in a wheelchair equality isn't equal access to the stairs of the court, but to the justice inside. To a person who is blind equality isn't equal access to the heavy textbooks carried by her classmates, but to the education contained within. When bringing the lofty pronouncements of the UDHR down to implementation, the devil is in the details. Ask any judge.. or a person with a disability.

CRPD is the most accurate and comprehensive global statement by persons with disabilities regarding their own dignity, independence, personal empowerment and accessibility needs. Whereas UDHR articulates the rights and freedoms they share with everyone, CRPD fleshes out those rights and creates meaning within the experience of disability.

Last Tuesday, although a strong majority of the US Senate voted for American ratification of CRPD, including 8 Republicans (all Democrats voted for it), as an international treaty a full 2/3 of the Senate was required. The rest of the Republican senators, with one eye focused squarely on the small but vocal extreme within their party who were riled up by unfounded fears stoked by Rick Santorum, voted it down. In the same limited space of a tweet after the vote was taken, Santorum included both gloating and a sales pitch for membership to his political organization.

We did it. #CRPD was defeated today. @patriot_voices will cont to have an impact on important issues. Pls join us

— Rick Santorum (@RickSantorum) December 4, 2012

Although disappointing - and insulting - to the disability community, the vote has served to alienate the Republican party from one of the largest minorities in the U.S. - and that's before taking into account the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, friends, colleagues and neighbours of Americans with disabilities frustrated by this slap in the face to their rights. Harry Reid, the majority Senate leader, plans to reintroduce the legislation in the next session of congress.

It took over 40 years after UDHR before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by president George H.W. Bush. It took over 25 years after that before CRPD was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It's taken another 6 years to make it to the Senate for ratification. It's been more a marathon than a sprint, but clearly the trend - and history - are on the side of that universal declaration of human rights - for people with disabilities: the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.