Disability Rights


A generation ago, many people with disabilities were locked away in institutions, thought to be “unfit for citizenship” or burdens on society. Children with disabilities could not attend regular schools, not only because schools were inaccessible, but because there was an assumption that children with disabilities should be segregated.

In response, and based on similar strategies of the civil and women’s rights movements, the disability rights movement formed in the 1970s to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities under the rallying call “Nothing about us without us!”

In 1990, the disability rights movement secured a major victory -- the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark legislation required all sectors of society to remove barriers that prevent disabled people from full participation in American life. In 1999, the movement took Georgia's Olmstead case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that disabled people must be able to live in the “most integrated setting” possible in their communities. 

While many people with disabilities are succeeding in all aspects of American life, negative attitudes persist. Disabled people still experience bullying and stereotyping. The long-term care system forces people with disabilities to live in nursing homes and other institutions instead of their own homes.  Efforts to promote the dignity, potential, and equality of all people continue. 

Around the world, people with disabilities have modeled their own domestic legislation on the ADA, joining with advocates in the United States to create an international movement, including an international treaty -- the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities -- which sets a single standard for the rights of disabled people globally.

External Resources

Horror Behind Closed Doors of Polish Residential Institution

“My child’s nightmare lasted around a year and a half. She was beaten and locked in a caged bed, sometimes for the entire day or even two days.”
This is how a mother described the ordeal her daughter Kasia (pseudonym) went through in a residential institution for girls and women with intellectual disabilities in Jordanów, a small town in southern Poland.

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Council of Europe Presses Pause on Draft Mental Health Protocol

After a long fight by human rights advocates, the Council of Europe has temporarily suspended further consideration of a flawed draft treaty which would have undermined the rights of people with disabilities.

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Death of a Man with a Disability at the Hands of Brazilian Police

The death of Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, a 38-year-old Black man with a psychosocial disability, on May 25, 2022 at the hands of Federal Highway Police in the Brazilian state of Sergipe, is deeply disturbing.

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One Year Since Deadly Heatwave in Canada, Protections Still Needed

As the one-year anniversary of a lethal heatwave in Western Canada approaches, the British Columbia and Canadian governments need to ensure that support is in place for those most at risk from climate change-exacerbated extreme heat.

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‘CARE Court’ is No Solution for Unhoused People in California

In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a proposed framework to force some people living with mental health conditions to undergo treatment under court order. On Wednesday the California Senate passed a bill to enact this framework and create the deceptively named Community Assistance Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Court. There is nothing empowering about involuntary treatment.

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Ensure People with Disabilities Can Vote in Lebanon Elections

As Lebanese citizens get ready to vote in parliamentary elections on May 15, questions remain whether those with disabilities will be able to safely cast their ballots.

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Costa Rica’s Mental Health Bill a Step Back for Human Rights

Last week, Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly passed a troublesome bill to create a National Act on Mental Health. The bill follows an outdated biomedical model to treat people who might be experiencing a mental health crisis or have mental health conditions, also known as psychosocial disabilities.

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Time for British Columbia to Cancel Immigration Detention Contract

Human rights organizations and advocates across the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) are launching a 14-Days-of-Action campaign to urge the provincial government to cancel its immigration detention contract with the Canada Border Services Agency.

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Low Income Puts Older People’s Rights at Risk

At a recent meeting, the United Nations Open-ended Working Group on Ageing highlighted how low income in older age can limit older people’s enjoyment of their rights, including the rights to food, health, and to live independently, and be included in the community.

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Older People No Longer Invisible Casualties of War in Ukraine

The impact of war on older people has never been more visible than in the conflict in Ukraine. Images of older people unable to reach the safety of basements, being carried over makeshift bridges or walking through body-strewn streets haunt our screens. Some have been unable to flee. Others have decided not to leave their lifelong homes.

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Refugees in Europe Need Mental Health Support

“If your mental health is not good, how are you supposed to move forward?”, said Rafi (not his real name), a young Afghan man who was evacuated to France a few months ago. After fleeing Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover, all evacuees we interviewed in France continue to grapple with trauma and psychological distress.

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Human Rights Watch Urges Support for NYS Sentencing Reform

Human Rights Watch is an international non-profit organization dedicated to investigating and monitoring violations of basic human rights throughout the world, including in the United States. Human Rights Watch conducts investigations of human rights abuses in around 100 countries. Our US Program focuses on, among other issues, international human rights law compliance within the criminal legal system.

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Lebanon: Questions for Candidates About Rights

Candidates for Lebanon’s May 15, 2022, parliamentary elections should make commitments to support key reforms that would improve the human rights situation in the country.

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Mexico Bill Would Further Endanger Disability Rights

For the second time in less than six months, a prominent member of the majority party in the Mexican Senate has introduced a bill to amend the country’s civil law framework with provisions that would further restrict the rights of people with disabilities.

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Canada: Jailing Immigration Detainees Infringes on Rights

Canada’s practice of incarcerating immigration detainees in provincial jails is inconsistent with international human rights standards, and jail conditions potentially breach federal-provincial immigration detention contracts, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. The groups released a legal memorandum about the practice, today, on Canada’s Refugee Rights Day.

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