Training Outline

2.2 Standard Lecture: Disability as a Human Rights Issue (20 minutes)

  • Explain to participants that over the last century, we have seen a major evolution in the way individuals with disabilities are perceived, interacted with, treated, and supported. For centuries, most people with disabilities have been excluded from mainstream society, based on the notions that disability was something to be feared or pitied (linked to cultural taboos), or more recently, that disability was a problem of the individual – something that could be ‘corrected’ to a certain extent through medical and rehabilitative treatment, frequently in specialist, segregated centres. The policy focus associated with these ways of understanding disability was on charity in the first case, and on the provision of services catering to their medical and associated rehabilitation requirements – as well as on welfare and social security provisions – in the second case. These approaches are generally referred to as the charity model and the medical model of disability and led to the social exclusion of disabled persons.

    In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on the social and physical environmental factors constraining the participation of disabled persons in the world of work in society more generally. This trend has led to an increasing recognition of the rights of persons with disabilities and their status as citizens. Underlying this is a transformation in understanding of disability. Rather than being seen as a personal problem or tragedy, there is now a recognition that many of the barriers to participation arise from the way in which society is built and organized, together with the way in which people think about disability and the assumptions they make.

    As the evolution has taken place in policy terms from the medical model to the social model – more recently called the rights-based model – there has been a more general acceptance of disability. As a result, individuals with disabilities have been afforded more and more opportunity to fill their roles in society as productive citizens. This shift has taken considerable time to filter systematically through to laws, policies, programmes and services shift from the perception of disability as a social welfare issue wherein people with disabilities were marginalized within society.

    Using Transparency 9, illustrate the differences between the medical and social models, explaining that the medical model is based on “fixing” something that is perceived as being wrong; whereas the social model focuses on dismantling environmental barriers to full participation.

    The medical model emphasizes the individual’s impairment, disability and limitations. Based on the idea that there is one norm for everybody; it seeks to rehabilitate the individual in line with what is considered ‘normal’. Services are generally provided based on what is available rather than what the person wants.

    The social model seeks to put persons with disabilities at the centre of services and support they need and it emphasizes capacity – what the person can do, versus what they cannot. Furthermore, the social model states that behaviour is influenced by environment and goes as far as to say, for example, that wheelchair-users who live in completely physically accessible environments do not experience impediments or barriers to working or living in their communities. The model encourages independence and seeks to minimize the experience of disability by identifying and maximizing an individual’s capacity. It can be described as trying to rehabilitate society, rather than the individual person with an impairment.

    Using Transparency 10, illustrate the definition of human rights, underscoring that disability issues are now increasingly viewed as issues of human rights. The basic idea of human rights law, centered on the concept of human dignity, is that all people have equal rights, notably the right to the full enjoyment of the right to work. This reflects the simple, and at the same time crucially important notion, that everyone is a human being. Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever their nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, disability, or any other status. Everyone is entitled to human rights without discrimination. Corresponding to the rights of individuals, states have the duty to protect, respect and fulfill human rights. International human rights law lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights, the and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups. This reappraisal of disability issues as issues of human rights is prompting major shifts in international and national law. It is now widely accepted that the human rights of persons with disabilities must be protected and promoted through general, as well as specially-designed laws, policies and programmes. National governments can make this possible through their legislation.

    The human rights Charters and Conventions adopted from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s – such as the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1946, the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966 and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political rights in 1966 – do not specifically mention people with disabilities. It is only since the 1970s that the disadvantages faced by disabled persons, their social exclusion, and the discrimination against them were increasingly perceived to constitute a human rights issue. The shift from a social welfare approach to the one based on human rights is reflected in explicit reference to persons with disabilities in human rights Charters, Conventions and initiatives adopted since the 1980s, and in an increasing number of special – and usually non-binding – instruments adopted by such organizations as the UN and the Council of Europe. These instruments include the Council of Europe Coherent Policy for the Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities 1992 and the UN Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities 1993.

    On 19 December 2001, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 56/168 establishing an “Ad Hoc Committee, open to the participation of all Member States and observers of the United Nations, to consider proposals for a comprehensive and integral international convention to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disability, based on the holistic approach in the field of social development, human rights and non-discrimination and taking into account the recommendations of the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission for Social Development.”  On the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee at its second Meeting in June 2003, a decision was taken to proceed with the development of such a Convention. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its Optional Protocol was adopted on 13 December 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and was opened for signature on 30 March 2007. On 3 May 2008, the CRPD and its Optional Protocol entered into force. This marked a major milestone in the effort to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.

    Similar shifts from a social welfare to a human rights law approach are taking place on a regional and national level, with an increasing number of existing human rights instruments being amended to include the rights of people with disabilities, and new instruments being adopted, both comprehensive and disability-specific.

    OPTIONAL EXERCISE (45 minutes): Separate participants into small groups based on the decade in which they graduated from secondary school (e.g. 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, etc.). Each group should identify a group reporter and recorder. You will need to have flip chart paper and felt tip markers for each group. Using Transparency 11, have each group reflect back on their high school experiences and answer the following questions: What were the fads/fashions? What were the scientific discoveries? Who were the idols? Where did you see people with disabilities?  As responses are generated the individual recorder should do so on flip chart paper. At the end of the exercise the individual reporting should share the group’s responses. Take ten minutes at the end to identify common themes, and track the public perceptions and experiences of people with disabilities across the decades.
  • Explain to participants that many human rights charters and conventions adopted from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s did not specifically mention people with disabilities. It is only since the 1970s that the disadvantages faced by persons with disabilities have been perceived as a human rights issue.
  • Using Transparency 12, highlight positive changes that have taken place to elevate the experience of disability as a human rights issue.
  • Conclude this section using Transparency 13 to highlight the UN’s most recent Convention which further reinforces disability as a human rights issue.