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Until recent years, the implications of disability for human rights went largely unaddressed. There is only one reference to disability in the foundational instruments of Human Rights and that relates to Social Security.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons 1975, the World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons 1982 and the UN Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities 1999 are the main legal texts in this area. There is also mention of disability in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights 1994.


“The measure of a man, or woman, is not so much what they have accomplished, though that has weight. It often is much more though what that man or woman has overcome to accomplish what they have.” –  Leif Gregersen, Through The Withering Storm

The best definition appears in the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities 1993… the term… encompasses a wide variety of functional limitations linked to physical, intellectual or sensory impairment, medical conditions or mental illness, whether permanent or transitory”.

A handicap refers to the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the life of the community on an equal level with others. Handicap it thus a function of the encounter between the person with a disability and the environment” (ref – International Human Rights Lexicon by Susan Marks and Andrew Clapham”).

It is better to refer to disabled or handicapped people as “people with disabilities” which avoids wholly defining a person’s existence and circumstances by reference to their disability. Whilst in the early days there was a preoccupation with the limitations of individuals now the spotlight is also on the shortcomings of society concerning disability.

There are 3 strategies proposed in the 1982 World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons

1) Prevention – measures to reduce the occurrence of impairments and the extent to which these impairments limit a person’s function

2) Rehabilitation – provision of resources such as technical aids

3) Equalization of opportunities – “the process through which the various systems of society and the environment, such as services, activities, information and documentation are made available on an equal basis to all, including people with disabilities (ref Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities 1993)”

Functional limitations may have to arise out of human rights abuse. There have been violations of rights concerning the provision of health care, food and water, safe conditions of work and education are frequently involved. The majority of the world’s people with a disability live in the developing world. Some may have sustained injuries from working in sweatshop conditions or armed conflict. This would also be a breach of international humanitarian law.

According to the World Programme of Action, the world must adapt to disability and not see disabled people as objects of charity. Steps to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities are seen as inadequate unless linked to moves to modify the social practices and institutions that turn disability into a disadvantage.

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