Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
That Time When the U.S. Led the World on Equal Rights. And 185 Countries Followed.
Written by: Jose Gabriel Coronado Flores
A Long Mistreated Minority
Throughout most of history, the reality for a majority of people with disabilities was to have no social safety net and face societal stigmatization and exclusion. In the United States, the notion of a form of legal protection for people with disabilities only started to gain traction in the mid-20th century with the rise of the disability rights movement. Until then, people were frequently admitted to a so-called institution. The goal of many of these institutions was to “reform” individuals with disabilities. Instead, they further isolated them from society and deepened the stigma against them. At a global level, it was the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that became a landmark example of the international commitment to achieve equality for persons with disabilities.
A Rising Movement
A few decades ago reforms began to take place in the U.S. and around the world to make headway towards equality for persons with disabilities. The passage of the 504 provisions of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, guaranteed equal access to federal services regardless of ability. The eventual enforcement of these provisions allowed for people with disabilities to receive crucial services like education and physical access to federal buildings, and was a big step towards becoming a respected and recognized part of society. Full legal protections would not come, however, until the passage of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA would be so consequential that it was to shape the international conversation on the subject.
Gaining International Recognition
The ADA would form the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The findings section of the ADA says in part:
“physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, yet many people with physical or mental disabilities have been precluded from doing so because of discrimination; others who have a record of a disability or are regarded as having a disability also have been subjected to discrimination….”
Drawing from this, the finalized version of the CRPD stresses the many historical injustices endured by persons with disabilities, and the necessity of finding a way to correct these injustices and fully integrate people with disabilities into the wider society. The passage of the CRPD was a landmark example of a commitment across the globe to people with disabilities. With over 185 signatories of the convention, it seemed like persons with disabilities had finally gained international recognition of their human rights. As always, however, things turned out to be a little bit more complex.
Barriers to Implementation in Middle Income Countries
As with many treaties, signing the CRPD should not be confused with its complete and correct implementing across the globe. Since its finalization in 2008, the CRPD has faced numerous barriers to its full implementation, especially in developing world regions like parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. While nations like Kenya and South Africa have had laws mandating quotas for the employment of people with disabilities even dating back to the early 2000s (the quotas being 5% and 2%, respectively), enforcement of these provisions is frequently lax. Other states, like Zambia, do not enshrine any disability rights in the legal codes. This is often due to inadequate physical infrastructure and the aforementioned social stigma still affecting people with disabilities. The story is similar in Latin America, with city streets often being inaccessible to those with mobility issues. According to the World Bank, in Mexico and Costa Rica it is estimated that people with disabilities earn 20% less than the average population. The same report points to Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa each being home to around 80 million people with disabilities. One knock-on effect of this significant part of the population being disadvantaged is that around 3% to 7% of the respective nations’ gross domestic product (GDP) is lost every year.
Barriers to Implementation in The United States
Even some of the world’s wealthiest nations have experienced barriers to implementing the CPRD. Somewhat ironically, despite leading the charge in the development of disability inclusion policies, the U.S. has long faced its own implementation challenges. The biggest of these is that people with impairments receiving Social Security Insurance (SSI), or government health insurance through Medicaid, are subjected to caps that limit SSI payments to $914 per month. Since inflation has driven average annual household spending to $61,325 (as of 2020), this essentially means that many recipients need to depend on others to make ends meet or face the denial of medical care. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability in the U.S in 2022 stood at 7.6%, twice that of persons without a disability (3.5%).
Legal Rights and Societal Realities
Despite the barriers to its implementation across the world, over 120 countries have enacted laws in either partial or full compliance with the provisions of the CRPD. However, legal recognition is not the same as societal recognition. Most of the remaining challenges around the complete adoption of all provisions of the CRPD appear to be at the intersection of sociocultural socioeconomic factors. That is to say that the employment challenges faced by persons with disabilities form a cycle in which those same challenges reinforce social stigmas against them which prevent them from being fully integrated into society. So long as countries continue enacting laws that help create equality for persons with disabilities, there is reason to believe that those challenge will continue to abate as well and the goals of the CRPD to eventually be fully realized.