The World’s Largest Minority

Around 10% of the world’s population live with a disability. They are the world’s largest minority.

On 17 July 2013, the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) opened its 2013 session at the United Nations. The CRPD came into force in 2008 and provides an important legal platform for addressing the global short-comings towards ensuring the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in an inclusive society as well as ensuring their human rights. Pointing to the link between disability protection, poverty and development, this year’s focus is on empowerment. In two months the General Assembly will hold a high-level meeting on disability and development.

A social model of disability

Article 1(2) of the CRPD provides the following definition:

“Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

The CRPD thus adopts a social model of disability, different from the medical model, in that it means that society is the main contributory factor in disabling people. While physical or mental variations may cause individual functional limitations, these do not have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

A social model of disability also means that the number of persons with disabilities is increasing through population growth and the aging process. In countries with life expectancies over 70 years, individuals spend an average about 8 years living with disabilities.

Development and Empowerment: The importance of the CRPD

80% of persons living with disabilities live in developing countries, according to the UN Development Programme. Most people with disabilities have poor access to education, heath care, employment and other necessities. Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable because they often are multiply disadvantaged. According to UNESCO, 90% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school.  Persons with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence and rape and less likely to obtain legal protection.

Despite the clear need for ensuring the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities, only 45 countries have anti-discrimination and other disability-specific laws. This makes the CRPD even more important, not only because it re-states rights but because it creates a new rights discourse. It provides specific steps that states need to ensure to enable persons with disabilities to exercise their rights. The focus of this year’s Conference on empowerment  has the potential to make an important contribution to the work that still needs to be done in this area. Bringing the link between disability, empowerment and development to the global agenda is a small but important step in reducing the world’s largest minority.