National Association of the Deaf

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities



The international rights of persons with disabilities are grounded in a broad framework based on the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international convention on human rights and other human rights instruments.

On March 30, 2007, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and Optional Protocol were formally opened for signature at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.  The CRPD is the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century.  Several NAD representatives, including Yerker Andersson, Nancy Bloch and Alexis Kashar, were on hand to witness this historical event.

The CRPD requires participating countries to periodically report to the United Nations (UN) on their progress in implementing and enforcing treaty obligations. Treaties are a powerful tool, and are used by advocacy groups to monitor, highlight, and promote human rights.  The CRPD helps increase public awareness of barriers faced by people with disabilities; promote law and policy changes at the national level; provide remedy in individual cases of rights violations or abuses; and channel resources into programs that support the rights of for people with disabilities.  Also, the CRPD requires nations to recognize that the human rights of people with disabilities deserve the same level of commitment that governments demonstrate toward the rights of people without disabilities and society as a whole.

In essence, the CRPD is a shift from the medical to a human rights model of disability. According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), an international, non-governmental organization, ". . . linguistic and cultural viewpoints of Deaf people are strengthened by the Convention.  The Convention is the first international treaty ever that recognizes sign languages and the linguistic human rights of deaf people."

The CRPD specifically states that governments are to recognize sign language as an official language in the Constitution and/or special legislation, ensure professional interpreter services, and guarantee education to deaf people in their sign language.

The WFD also states that, "The Convention also aims at better ensuring the right of Deaf people to get [an] education in sign language, use sign language in official interaction with authorities, promote access to interpreters and receive services as well as information in sign language.  In addition, it includes the recognition and support of cultural and linguistic identity."

The International Deaf Community

The WFD reported that there are approximately 72 million deaf people worldwide, with more than 80% living in developing countries.  A survey published by WFD in 1992 stated that in most countries deaf people have the freedom to assemble or establish representative bodies, to vote, to marry and have children.  Only a very few countries have made exceptions to these rights.  However, unemployment for deaf people is three times higher than world national averages.

In most countries, the government does nor recognize the value of sign language so there are no guarantees that deaf citizens have access to education or public information in their native sign language.  Also, in countries with national broadcasting services, only a few provide sign language interpretation, captions or produce news for their deaf population.  And, in many countries, there are no communication services and thus deaf people are cut off from access to essential information, resources and services.

The WFD continues to work closely with the United Nations and various multilateral agencies in promoting the human rights of deaf people in accordance with the principles and objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CRPD.  The WFD also continues to participate as a consultant and representative for deaf communities in the development of the CRPD.

The USA and the CRPD

The USA is one of the few countries that has not ratified the Convention nor signed the optional protocol.  Many disabled people's organizations around the world find it difficult to understand why the USA hasn't signed or rarified the CRPD, especially when our country is viewed as having the most advanced social and legal protection for people with disabilities.  Amazingly, the CRPD was partially inspired by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

On a positive note, before taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Convention.  After that, a two-thirds vote of the Senate is needed to ratify the treaty – which we hope will be accomplished quickly.  Education and outreach to members of Congress is important, so that they can understand why this Convention is so signification to and is supported by the American deaf community.

The NAD is an organizational member of Ratify Now (www.ratifynow.org), a group that is comprised of individuals and organizations who are passionate about using the CRPD to protect and advance the rights of people with disabilities worldwide – their website has a wealth of ratification advocacy tools.  For additional information, see the United Nation’s Enable website (www.un.org/disabilities), which is focused on rights and dignity of person with disabilities.

In summary, not only will the Convention promote equality and human rights, it will also give deaf people the opportunity to work with other nations in promoting deaf rights and improving interconnectivity between deaf communities.  But for opportunities yet to come, the USA will need to first ratify the treaty, which is expected to happen in 2012.

This article was adapted from “Unlocking Disabled Peoples' Rights,” by Peggy Linn Prosser, which appeared in the NADmag, January/February, 2009, and again updated in October 2012.