From 1981 onwards, the International Year of Disabled Persons, followed by the Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992), began opening the floor for the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the General Assembly in 1993. Even though the Standard Rules were not a legally binding instrument, they represented a moral commitment by Governments to take action towards the equalization of opportunities for people with disabilities. As a result, new concepts and frameworks began to emerge. First, the Disability Creation Process (1998) recognized the importance of social factors in the creation of situations of disability. Then, in 2001, the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health was reviewed along these lines, and the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps (2001) was issued. This same year, a proposal made by the Mexican delegation to the United Nations launched the negotiations for an international treaty on the rights of persons with disabilities.
In the interviews, a number of voices stressed the importance, prior to the Convention, of the medical model as an approach to disability. According to these voices, many of the actions taken at the time focused upon rehabilitation and physiotherapy, and promoted segregated services, such as special education. Amongst the interviewees, some insisted upon the fact that people with mental health disabilities were historically institutionalized and subjected to involuntary placements and involuntary treatments. Other interviewees insisted on the fact that people with disabilities largely suffered from discrimination, and in some countries, for reasons related to tradition, even suffered from stigmatization. As a result, people with disabilities were denied most of the human rights that are usually taken for granted: right to family, right to vote, legal capacity, etc. In addition, they had a poor access to education, access to information and access to employment.
Several testimonies from our collection tend to show that in some countries there were no laws relating to disability and, where there were, many of these existing laws were not even implemented, because there were no monitoring mechanisms. As a result, pressure from civil society was needed, to make access to rights such as education, employment, or health, a reality. This explains why disability movements began to arise, in an attempt to recognize common interests and overcome differences, such as the differences between impairment types. The emergence of new concepts and leaders, and the definition of criteria differentiating organizations OF and FOR people with disabilities facilitated the structuring of disabled people organizations into autonomous organizations.
In December 2001, a proposal from Mexico led to a UN Resolution that launched the negotiation process. In August 2002, an Ad Hoc Committee was created to discuss the relevance of an international treaty, and the idea of a Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities was finally accepted during the Committee’s 1st Session. During the 2nd Session, in June 2003, it was decided that the Convention would take the form of a comprehensive treaty and, in January 2004, a Working Group was given the task of writing a first draft, to serve as a basis for the negotiations. Between the 3rd Session in May 2004 and the 6th Session in August 2005, this draft was read and commented. With the input from these debates, the Chairperson prepared a revised version of the text that was discussed during the 7th and 8th Sessions of the Ad Hoc Committee. On December 13th, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol was adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly.
The overlapping of the information provided in the interviews shows that the negotiation process functioned as an out of the ordinary workshop, in which the interaction between civil society representatives and country delegates unfolded quite naturally. On the one hand, country representatives had in-depth knowledge of international human rights and of legal processes, but did not know much about disability. On the other hand, leaders from Disabled People’s Organizations had expertise of disability as a result of their life experience, but most had limited knowledge of United Nations’ processes. As a result, these leaders had to learn how to impact the negotiations by trying to influence country delegates, the ones who had the voice and votes at the General Assembly. And, the delegates managed to step down from their pedestals, so that the effort towards the Convention could occur as a collaborative process.
After being approved, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was opened to signature. It is important to note that the Convention could only enter into force once ratified by 20 countries. Therefore, the ratification process was launched, and deployed at country level. This is when the Disabled People’s Organization leaders who had taken part in the negotiations in New York spread the word in their own countries. The interviews collected bear witness to the many efforts made to advocate States for the Convention’s ratification: workshops were organized, and books, toolkits and guides were edited, so that people with disabilities could make the Convention their own and advocate at national level for its ratification.