Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

An excerpt from “The Right to Work of Persons with Disabilities – Assistive Technologies in Serbia”, by the author Marianne Schulze, a consultant in the field of human rights.

The lack of transparency of human rights of persons with disabilities is a result of, on one side, the fact that in human rights agreements disability is covered by the term ‘other circumstances’.

The list of the grounds on which discrimination is prohibited includes: ‘race, skin colour, gender, language, religion, political and other opinions, national or social background, property, birth or other circumstances’. It is like this from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which the list has been systematised. Except for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 23), persons with disabilities have been invisible in the main UN agreements on human rights.

Apart from the lack of evident legal protection, persons with disabilities have often been viewed as objects, and not as subjects, that is rights holders. Objectification leads to the focus on disability, the persistence of the medical model and the story about ‘defectology’. Persons with disabilities have been viewed as objects of pity that need ‘help’. Bearing in mind the fact that all members of human community have inborn dignity, persons with disabilities enjoy equal and inalienable rights. The focus is not on disability but on barriers based on attitudes and stereotypes of society members. Barriers lead to the exclusion of persons with disabilities from the full realisation of human rights. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities shifts the focus from person change to society change and fosters the removal of barriers in society. Great engagement of civil society left the mark on the final content of the Convention – active participation of civil society, especially persons with disabilities and representative organisations is mandatory in the implementation of the Convention and decision- making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities (Article 4, Point 3).

Social model

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities emphasises the impact of social barriers as a main cause of exclusion of persons with disabilities. Disability is based on a so-called social model – accessibility is enabled by removing physical barriers, but also wrong attitudes, stereotypes and prejudices. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gives a broad definition of discrimination which includes denying a reasonable accommodation of the environment but does not define deficiency or disability.

The lack of a definition of disability, with an open definition of who disabled persons are, is an integral part of the purpose of the Convention (Article 1). It is a very important fact since disability is viewed as a changing concept and, according to the social model, barriers in the form of wrong attitudes and physical barriers both contribute to disability.

General principles

The Convention includes a number of general principles, of which it is particularly important the possibility for independent decision-making. Persons with disabilities have often been denied, and still are, the rights to make decisions in many aspects of life- where and with whom they want to live, what they want to do and how to manage their own property.

Accessibility is another important principle. Besides removing social barriers, accessibility includes other aspects as well. Communicational aspect implies ensuring help to those persons who cannot speak, have partial or total sight or hearing impairment. Intellectual aspect implies ensuring formats which facilitate reading for the persons who have some kind of intellectual disability. The best known aspect of accessibility – physical aspect – includes the access to buildings. Finally, one should bear in mind economic aspect as well, that is, the ability to sustain oneself. Persons with disabilities are often denied the possibility to obtain education and well-paid job, which often leads to marginalisation resolved through economic aid.

The human rights answer to exclusion and marginalisation is inclusion. The principle of inclusion ensures that structures and practices change so as to enable inclusion of persons with disabilities in mainstream society. For this reason, the Convention on Persons with Disabilities talks, among other things, about inclusive employment and inclusive education.

Since the Convention is an agreement on human rights, the equality between men and women and the general right not to be discriminated against are incorporated in its main principles.

In order to ensure equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, and particularly in order to enable inclusion in all spheres of society equally with other people, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities strongly highlights the significance of help and support. This is especially reflected in the definition of reasonable accommodation of the environment (Article 2) and more generally, in providing help in any form according to the needs of a person with disability. Apart from the right to personal assistants necessary to support living and inclusion in the community (Article 19), the Convention also stipulates providing necessary support to a person with disability to act and enjoy legal capacity, which is different from previous models of guardianship.

The social model also dictates how and what is assessed at persons with disabilities. The focus is no longer on medical aspects of impairment, but on the help needed by a person with disability. This entails that professionals in charge of the assessment should have different skills and should be of various professions –a multi-professional team is qualified to make a good support needs assessment.

The Convention on Persons with Disabilities includes the rights from other UN conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities puts all human rights into a framework of accessibility and inclusion. The only universal human not mentioned in the text is freedom of religion.

Diversity and multiple discrimination

One of the main principles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is diversity (Article 3). The respect for difference is an important virtue in general. Besides, diversity principle has an important role in the assessment of potential basis for discrimination. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the bases according to which discrimination is prohibited are: race, skin colour, gender, language, religion, political and other opinions, national or social origin, property and birth and ‘other circumstances’. But, what are these ‘other circumstances’? The United Nations experts singled out disability, age, nationality, marital and family status, sexual orientation, health condition, place of residence and economic and social status as ‘other circumstances’. Apart from different grounds for discrimination, one should bear in mind that people can be discriminated on several grounds at the same time.

A concern because of the exposure of persons with disabilities to multiple and more serious forms of discrimination has been emphasised in the Preamble of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Inclusive employment

As it was already mentioned, the principles of accessibility and inclusion relate to all segments of life, especially to the important ones such as employment. Protection from discrimination of people based on a visible impairment, in the field of employment needs to ensure the access to labour market in the first place. Ideally, the basis for this should be created through inclusive education, attending mainstream and not ‘special’ schools. Overcoming segregation demands ensuring necessary support. This can be a personal assistant who helps in overcoming physical barriers, technical aid in the form of assistive tool and other forms of support. Inclusive employment depends also on attitudinal change in the environment. Employers need to develop an image of a person with disability as a person with potential to completely perform required tasks regardless of their impairment or required aid. The social model of employability also means that colleagues must have a contemporary image of what is needed for communication with persons with disabilities.


The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires establishing an institutional mechanism in order to facilitate its implementation. The Government coordinates countries’ activities and monitors implementation of the Convention by a special national monitoring mechanism. This body needs to be independent and established together with respecting Paris principles, UN resolution which stipulates rules by which an independent institution for human rights is formed.

Relevant ministries need to focus on the task of implementing inclusion and accessibility as soon as possible. Implementation and monitoring of the implementation of the Convention imply the participation of civil society, especially persons with disabilities and their representative organisations (Article 33). Separate, independent body is planned to ensure the protection of persons with disabilities from violence and other forms of abuse, such as harassment (Article 16).

Equally to the practice established for all agreements on human rights, a state is obliged to submit periodical reports about actions and implementation of the Convention to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is highly welcome that civil organisations and independent institutions submit reports on their impressions on the implementation measures. Civil society reports that is, alternative reports or shadow reports as they are sometimes called can be submitted in different formats. They need to be concise and meaningful, and to ensure concrete recommendations on how to improve implementation.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can be found in our E-library.

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