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The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

IMEW Briefing, No. 11, March 2008

In December 2006 the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This was preceded by a process lasting several years during which the United Nations addressed the subject of disabilities (cf. Degener 2006, Weiss 2006). Germany signed the Convention in March 2007. The next step is incorporation into national law.

The Convention calls for a paradigm shift from a policy of welfare to a policy of human rights (Degener 2006). It frees people with disabilities from their "social invisibility" (OHCHR). It is in the tradition of other "group conventions" such as the conventions on the rights of women and children. Like these, it does not contain any "special rights" for people with disabilities but merely defines more precisely the general protection of human rights as they relate to the special risks to which people with disabilities are exposed (Schmahl 2007). Herein lies the great innovatory potential of the Convention (Bielefeldt 2006).

Participation and Autonomy

The guiding principles of the Convention are full and effective participation and inclusion in society, together with respect for individual autonomy and a social regard for people with disabilities. People who require more intensive support are explicitly included. In a remarkable way this links fundamental freedoms, i.e. the right to defend oneself against state and other interference in personal liberty, with social rights, i.e. the right of access to social services and benefits.

Thus the right to equal recognition as persons before the law includes not only protection against arbitrary or unequal treatment before the law but also the support and assistance which people with disabilities need to actually exercise their rights (Articles 12 and 13). Indeed, it is only possible if both aspects of the right to justice are combined. This also includes all those who until now have been considered legally incompetent under German law. This has far-reaching consequences for implementation. The existing concept of legal representation in German law would have to be replaced by an institutionally and financially safeguarded concept of legal assistance and support (Lachwitz 2007; Krause-Trapp 2007). In addition, a court order for enforced treatment and institutionalisation in the case of a mental disorder would be possible only as a last resort, where the risk of self-harm or harm to others could not be averted in any other way and all options for voluntary help and support had been exhausted (Kaleck et al. 2007).

Essential to autonomy, independence and participation on a basis of equality is the right to an "adequate standard of living” (Article 28), which goes well beyond the "sociocultural minimum" laid down in German social law. It also includes the obligation to remove all barriers which impede equal access “to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications" (Article 9).

Stigmatisation and Discrimination

Definitions of disability are usually stigmatising. The Convention does not give a final definition and emphasises that the concept of disability is constantly evolving. It thus bases itself on the social model which attributes disability to social barriers and lack of support. This model replaces the medical model which, like the definition in German social law, is based on individual functional impairment. According to the Convention, therefore, persons with disabilities include all those whose individual impairments may, in interaction with various barriers, hinder their full and effective participation in society (Article 1). The "deficit approach" to understanding disability is thus replaced consistently by a "diversity approach". While the specialness of each individual deserves recognition, social circumstances must be regarded as the actual problem.

It is also worthy of note that the Convention calls for awareness-raising. The signatory states undertake to foster respect for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities and to promote awareness of their capabilities and contributions to society (Article 8) in accordance with the Convention. In addition, specific clauses call for awareness-training programmes to promote awareness amongst people employed in the educational, judicial and health sectors.

Another aspect that deserves attention is that the concept of "discrimination" is not limited to the withholding of formally equal rights but explicitly includes discrimination through prejudice, barriers and lack of support (Article 2). Special emphasis is placed on the danger that women with disabilities (Article 6) and children with disabilities (Article 7) could be subject to multiple discrimination.

Education, Work and Accommodation

Special institutions for people with disabilities can bring with them a threat to respect for human rights. The signatory states undertake to take legislative and administrative measures to effectively prevent violations of these rights. This includes respect for privacy (Article 22) and protection from exploitation, violence and abuse (Article 16) in all residential, working, educational, therapeutic and rehabilitation facilities.

The Convention sets out the rights of persons with disabilities to choose what type of education they desire (Article 24) and to choose their place of residence and the type of living arrangements. Regional education laws which are biased towards special education and regulations limiting expenses which force people with disabilities into residential accommodation against their will would have to be amended to guarantee full exercise of this right to choice.

The Convention contains the "right to the opportunity to gain a living by work", linked with labour and trade union rights, a comprehensive ban on discrimination by employers and the obligation to foster an open and inclusive labour market (Article 27). In future, therefore, integration into the primary labour market would consistently have to take precedence over employment in workshops for people with disabilities.

Medicine and Research

The social model of disability is also a response to the potential for discrimination in a medical context. According to the Convention, people with disabilities have the right to "the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health" and in this context must be protected from any discriminatory inequality of treatment or interference with their autonomy (Article 25).

The Convention expressly prohibits the subjecting of a person to medical or scientific experimentation without his or her free consent (Article 15). Such experimentation with adults lacking the capacity to consent is expressly forbidden in the German Medicines Act but is otherwise not controlled by legislation. In practice it takes place in a legal grey area; for example, when research is undertaken into the genetic causes of mental disabilities and dementia.

The Innovative Potential of the Convention

The Convention is inspired by the indivisibility and universality of human rights, in particular of the fundamental freedoms and social rights (Lob-Hüdepohl 2007). However, these principles are the subject of dispute (Lohmann et al. 2005). It is often claimed that social rights are indeterminable and could violate the fundamental freedoms. They should therefore have only a subordinate status (cf. Habermas 1998). But the fundamental freedoms are worthless to people with disabilities if barriers prevent their access to them and they lack the material basis for a self-determined and independent life (cf. Tugendhat 1996; Gosepath 1998). People with disabilities have also had to discover that, under the dictum of social care, social benefits are coupled to patronising interference and heteronomy (Graumann 2006). The indivisibility and universality of human rights is therefore of particular relevance to them. With this in mind and emphasising social inclusion combined with strict respect for individual autonomy, the Convention challenges the prevailing understanding of the duties of the welfare state in terms of solidarity and mutual support (cf. Kersting 2000).

Sigrid Graumann


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