The UN Convention On The Rights of Persons With Disabilities: Implications for the Future


The establishment of basic human rights for persons with disabilities was enhanced by the United Nations, providing an international impetus to the cause of equality for all of the world’s citizens, whether non-disabled or members of the disability community. Recently, the UN held a “day of recognition” for all those with disabilities.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted a text in the General Assembly on December 13, 2006 and was ratified on March 20, 2007. In force since May 3, 2008, the Convention and text are monitored by a designated committee. The Convention supports full inclusion for people with disabilities in all aspects of life, include accessibility wherever possible. The Convention’s primary goal is to “protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.”

The Convention created guiding principles, along with a definition of “disability:
Guiding Principles of the Convention:

1. Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons
2. Non-discrimination
3. Full and effective participation and inclusion in society
4. Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity
5. Equality of opportunity
6. Accessibility
7. Equality between men and women
8. Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities

The Convention’s Definition of disability:

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 convention also espouses goals, recognized as basic human rights, of the principles reasonable accommodation, prevention of discrimination, accessibility, the right to live independently, the right to education, the right to health, participation rights, and right to vote.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has incorporated basic tenets and that are both consistent and inconsistent with the principles of Therapeutic Jurisprudence. The preamble to the declaration of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities presents a basic tenet of Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ). It is stated in section O:

Considering that persons with disabilities should have the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making processes about policies and programs, including those directly concerning them […]

This concept is clearly consistent with the principles of Therapeutic Jurisprudence. The decision-making power of the client is one of the basic tenets of TJ, and it is so recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This recognition of basic human rights is cited in Section C of the preamble:

Reaffirming the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and the need for persons with disabilities to be guaranteed their full enjoyment without discrimination […]

The UN Convention has presented the components of its listing of the basic rights of people with disabilities that are consistent with Therapeutic Jurisprudence. Nevertheless, among its basic tenets are concepts that are not necessarily consistent with TJ. The United Nations designated December 3, 2008 as a day of recognition for the rights of people with disabilities. Specifically, the UN noted that basic human rights for such persons can only be achieved by the adoption of a common goal by all of the world’s people to recognize such rights, regardless of a state’s laws, regulations or charters. According to UN policy:

Legislation alone will not ensure that persons with disabilities can enjoy their human rights. States will need to formulate effective policies and programs that will transform the provisions of the Convention into practices that will have a real impact on the lives of persons with disabilities. For persons with disabilities, as for all persons, the denial of one right can lead to the denial of other rights and opportunities throughout their lives.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has specified principles that are consistent with Therapeutic Jurisprudence. The Convention has also specified principles that may not be consistent with TJ. For example, the elimination of national laws in sovereign states that may be considered discriminatory may also lessen the attempt to attain accountability for specific crimes and actions.
Certainly, participation rights would also serve as a key ingredient of Therapeutic Jurisprudence. All of the aforementioned principles, in fact, support the concept of the right of persons with disabilities to serve as participants in all aspects of life.
A possible negative aspect of the principles established by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can be examined by reviewing Martin Seligman’s construct, which he refers to as “learned helplessness”. Of course, learned helplessness can also be used to question the efficacy of therapeutic jurisprudence, as well. However, Seligman’s concept provides a poor example of an inconsistency between Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Convention. Learned helplessness would only apply when an individual with a disability used either TJ or the principles of the convention to escape responsibility and accountability rather than employ the concepts of either school of thought to engage in self-improvement, participation, and accessibility.

Certainly, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Therapeutic Jurisprudence both recognize the rights of people with mental disabilities. Consequently, both the Convention and TJ support the goal of full participation for such individuals. Hence, the support of goals to enhance opportunities for people with mental disabilities to serve in inclusive environments would be consistent for both schools of thought.

The convention was based on the original United Nations principle that all individuals have basic human rights. Those basic rights extend to all people whether they are members of the disability population or are non-disabled. Foremost, it is the right of all people with disabilities to be active members of mainstreamed society. Some of the Convention principles, such as equality and accessibility, are designed to support the inclusion of people with disabilities in the mainstream, not simply as observers, but as active participants. This very concept is consistent with therapeutic jurisprudence, which supports the right of the client to be an active participant in his/her own legal proceeding.

When the United Nations was officially created at a meeting in San Francisco in 1946, the first act was to recognize that all of the world’s people were entitled to basic human rights. Part of the impetus for this movement was the reaction and to and shock of the holocaust. It was clearly understood that a genuine danger existed if basic rights were denied to any group, whether because of ethnicity, politics, or any other reason. Given the disparate cultures that exist throughout the globe, it has taken a long time for people with disabilities to receive international recognition as a viable segment of world society. Nevertheless, recent UN events should provide new opportunities for many individuals who previously faced a life obstructed by societal limitations.

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