By Tim Wyman-McCarthy, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University
At least as far as UN Conventions are concerned, disability rights are the new kid on the block. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006 and coming into force in May 2008, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has now been ratified by 159 States. Noticeably absent from this group, however, is the United States. While the US is infamous for its reticence to sign international agreements—or to play nicely in the international-legal sandbox—this omission is nonetheless surprising, given the long and rich history of disability activism in the country. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—one of the most advanced, and earliest, pieces of legislation protecting the rights of persons with disabilities—is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
And disability rights issues continue to receive public attention in the country. In honour of the ADA’s 25th Anniversary, this July has been named Disability Pride Month, and on July 12th New York will host the first ever Annual Disability Pride Parade. The parade aims to “instill or reinforce Pride among all members of the disability community; to change the public perception of people with disabilities; and to tear down the silos that segment our community.” Parading down Broadway in the name of disability is not an insignificant achievement considering that many persons with disabilities around the world are hidden away in institutions, shackled in their own homes, or denied the opportunity to participate in political or public life. Such visibility, then, is a critical success, and reflects the gains made by the movement in recent years.
So while there is much to celebrate, there is also much to reflect on and consider for the future. This past June I attended the Conference of State Parties to the CRPD at the UN, where I had the opportunity to think about the status of disability rights globally. Overwhelmingly, conversations looked at how to close the implementation gap to make the provisions of the CRPD a reality for as many individuals around the world as possible. States, it was noted, are often surprisingly open to conversations about disability, and tend not to deny the existence of persons with disabilities within their borders (this contrasts markedly with the case of indigenous rights, as many States continue to deny the existence of indigenous peoples in their territory). As such, many of the central events of the Conference dealt with issues of implementation, including mainstreaming disability rights throughout the UN system, data collection, and various intersectionalities (the abuse of women with disabilities, access to education for children with disabilities).
There are also a host of issues which remain to be adequately addressed, such as persons with disabilities in humanitarian crises and situations of risk (including the Central African Republic and Nepal); the disproportionate attention given to persons with physical disabilities at the cost of attention to those with psychosocial, cognitive, or intellectual disabilities; the shackling of persons with disabilities; and the work that still has to be done to ensure States transition from the use of institutions to community-based services. And if disability issues and persons with disabilities themselves were highly visible at the UN in June and across the United States in July, one does not need to look too far to see that there is still much to be done in this country, not least on the notoriously inaccessibly subway system in New York itself (of the 466 stations only about 90 are accessible). Thus the push for accessible taxis and subways is vital for New York, a city with an estimated 800,000 individuals with disabilities, comprising 10% of the population (though only 3.4% of those employed have disabilities—another key area for improvement). And there are more hidden, less visible abuses against persons with disabilities here in the United States: a Human Rights Watch report released this past May concluded that across the country “staff working in jails and prisons have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force on prisoners with mental disabilities such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”
It is a given that social and rights movements need more than UN Conventions and the relatively toothless force of international human rights law to effect change—but this does not negate the role that documents like the CRPD can play as a benchmark against which to measure conditions of persons with disabilities globally. In this capacity, it matters that the most powerful countries endorse them, and it remains embarrassing that the United States, whose own ADA is often considered the model for the CRPD, has failed thus far to do so. As one commentator at a recent event at the UN called “The ADA: Twenty-Five Years of Changing America and Inspiring the World” noted, the United States Senate’s decision not to ratify the CRPD has nothing to do with the treaty itself, given how closely it aligns with the already in-place ADA, and has everything to do with taking a shot at the UN system—at the price of persons with disabilities globally. Ratification would allow the United States to engage with, hold accountable, and assist other countries as they go about implementing the Convention. As New York and the United States celebrates disability pride and the movement devoted to protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, it should be remembered how much work is yet to be done both in this country and abroad.
Tim Wyman-McCarthy is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research interests include indigenous rights in settler colonial settings, human rights discourse, and disability rights.