Disability Rights

In 2011, over 650 million people in the world have a disability; they make up approximately 10% of the world’s population and are the world’s largest minority. The UN Development Program estimates 80% of persons with disabilities live in developing countries. Worldwide trends, including the combination of population growth, population ageing and medical advances means the number is climbing.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) requires governments to uphold the rights of children and adults with disabilities. The CRPD recognizes that although other human rights conventions have the potential to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities, this potential is not being fully realized. For example, the UN Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000, do not mention “disability.” The CRPD does not create new rights; its purpose is to guarantee that the rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights treaties include persons with disabilities. Its main objective is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms by all people with disabilities. The CRPD was adopted in December 2006 and came into force in May 2008. Canada was among the first to sign on and ratified the convention in March 2010.

The main principles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are:

  • respect for the inherent dignity of every person, the freedom to make their own choices and be independent
  • non-discrimination
  • full participation and inclusion in society
  • respect for differences and the acceptance of people with disabilities as part of human diversity
  • equal opportunity
  • accessibility (i.e. having access to transportation, places and information, not refusing access to someone because they have a disability)
  • equality between men and women
  • respect for the evolving capacity of persons with disabilities and their right to preserve their identity

Persons with disabilities are recognized as those with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments that, in combination with various barriers, may hinder their full and equal participation in society. The CRPD aims to shift attitudes towards seeing people with disabilities as “subjects” who have rights and are able to claim their rights and make their own decisions based on free and informed consent. Rather than seeing disability as a medical condition, the Convention recognizes disability as the interaction between an inaccessible environment and/or negative attitudes and a person’s particular condition. During the years of negotiations on the wording of this treaty – the first major human rights treaty of this century – advocates adopted the credo, “Nothing about us without us!”

The CRPD also sets out measures that states are required to take in order to create an environment where people with disabilities are able to enjoy their rights. This could include ensuring access to the physical environment (such as installing ramps to provide access to public buildings), as well as access to information and communications technology (such as providing for translation services, or providing closed captioning on television stations).

In Canada, the legal basis for ensuring equality for all persons, including those with disabilities, is in both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in provincial human rights codes. Section 1 of the Charter reads:

1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Section 15 of the Charter outlines the fundamental principle of equality before and under law and equal protection and benefit of law:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Additionally, Canadian provinces and territories have adopted individual Human Rights Codes. The Charter applies only to government actions and conduct, while human rights codes apply to interactions between individuals, corporations and institutions and members of the private sector as well.