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

New York Mayor Targets Unhoused Communities

This week, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that he is empowering police and emergency service providers to forcibly hospitalize unhoused community members they perceive to have a mental health condition, including if they pose no discernable risk to others.

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Ghana: Chaining People with Mental Health Conditions Persists

Ghana’s government has taken inadequate steps to end the chaining and inhumane treatment of people with real or perceived mental health conditions – psychosocial disabilities – in faith-based and traditional healing centers despite a 2017 ban on such treatment, Human Rights Watch said today.

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Witness: “Surrounded by walls, I just wished I could see the moon”

In the five years Walid has been living in Canada, he has seen more of this country than most Canadians. This summer he cycled coast-to-coast – 8,500 kilometers – returning to his home in Halifax with breathtaking photographs of beautiful, open vistas. It was this freedom Walid sought when he fled to Canada for refugee protection.

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A Positive Move to Support People with Disabilities

As someone with a physical disability that requires intense forms of support, I can easily relate to the stories shared by other people with disabilities about their struggles when they lack access to quality support and care systems that foster independence and the ability to make choices about their own lives.

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Immigration Detention Campaign Focuses on Canada’s Federal Government

Following the success of four provinces canceling their immigration detention contracts with the Canada Border Services Agency, human rights organizations and advocates across Canada are now turning their attention to the federal government, calling on it to stop using provincial jails for immigration detention.

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Qatar World Cup Ambassador’s Homophobic Comments Fuel Discrimination

On November 8, Khalid Salman, a 2022 FIFA Qatar World Cup Ambassador, described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” in an interview with ZDF, a TV channel in Germany. He also remarked that being gay is “haram,” which is Arabic for “forbidden.”

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Leave No One Behind

Between March 2021 and October 2022, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 people, including people with disabilities, their families, disability and climate change activists and experts, representatives of humanitarian organizations, and others, as a component of our research on the situation of people with disabilities during climate-related disasters and extreme weather events.

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Australia: Flood Response Failed to Protect Most at Risk

Australian authorities failed to take effective steps to protect those most at risk from foreseeable harm of the catastrophic flooding in the New South Wales town of Lismore in February 2022.

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In Afghanistan, Rights Setbacks for People with Disabilities

Afghanistan started celebrating White Cane Safety Day in 2011, a day marked around the world to advocate for the rights of people with vision impairments. But there are doubts on whether there will be white cane day activities in Afghanistan this year.

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World Mental Health Day: Support Conflict Survivors

Governments, UN agencies, and humanitarian organizations should take concrete steps to develop and invest in psychosocial support for people affected by armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch said today. In line with the theme of World Mental Health Day 2022 on October 10, to “make mental health and well-being for all a global priority,” the focus should be on community-based, rights-respecting services both in conflict countries and in countries where people are fleeing to.

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High Toll of Violence For Women With Disabilities New Survey Reveals

Mexican women with disabilities experience a shockingly high rate of domestic violence, a new government survey has found.

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For the Deaf Community, Sign Language Equals Rights

Today is International Day of Sign Languages, a day to celebrate this unique aspect of Deaf culture but also a time to reflect on the work needed to ensure greater inclusion for this community.

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Canada: Nova Scotia To End Immigration Detention in Jails

Nova Scotia’s confirmation that it will terminate its immigration detention contract with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is another win for migrant and refugee rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Canada said today. The move follows a landmark decision by British Columbia on July 21 to terminate its own contract with the border agency.

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US: California Should Enact Housing, Treatment Options That Work

A newly passed California measure proponents claim will address the needs of unhoused people is open to abuse and risks failing to provide people with needed housing and services.

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Syria: Children with Disabilities Left Unprotected

Children with disabilities caught up in the Syrian war are at greater risk of harm and lack access to the health care, education, or humanitarian aid needed to protect their basic rights. The United Nations, the Syrian government, and concerned governments should urgently ensure protection and assistance to meet the needs of children with disabilities in Syria.

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