Legal History of Disabled People's Organizations

 The role and position of disabled people in rehabilitation programmes should be seen in the context of the global history of disability and rehabilitation on one hand and the more recent history of the disability movement on the other hand. In this section an overview is given of - at times - coinciding developments.


With the current euphoria about the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) it is good to realize that this is the end result of a process that took over 30 years to achieve. It is not in the scope of this paper to elaborate on the history of the rise of disabled people‘s organizations. Yet there are a number of moments in this history that coincided with CBR developments, that are worth noting.


The year 1975 marked the signing of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Disabled People. Although it is not legally binding, this Declaration provides a framework for the equal treatment of disabled people and their access to services. This milestone meant for many disabled people an understanding and acceptance by the community of what their lived experience of disability meant: disabled people want to be seen and valued as fully human and where needed, to be supported to reach their full potential.


During the mid-seventies a process of de-institutionalization of services took place in a number of western countries. In the field of psychiatric conditions and intellectual disability in particular, programmes and services were developed at the interface or within communities. The growing assertiveness of consumer movements in western countries formed a facilitating factor in this development. Almost parallel with these developments in western societies, WHO and later other UN organizations started to promote CBR. However, it should be noted that less formally all kinds of grassroot initiatives were already taking place, with characteristics of CBR.


The year 1981 marks the International Year of Disabled Persons and during the same year Disabled People’s International (DPI) held its 1st World Congress in Singapore. It was however, in 1980 in Winnipeg, that the concept of an international organization of disabled people emerged and DPI was formed as a reaction to professional paternalism within Rehabilitation International, the then global organization on disability and rehabilitation issues.


A major outcome of the International Year of Disabled Persons was the formulation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons, adopted by the General Assembly in December 1982 (5). The World Programme of Action (WPA) is a global strategy to enhance disability prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities, which pertains to full participation of persons with disabilities in social life and national development. The WPA also emphasizes the need to approach disability from a human rights perspective. “Equalization of opportunities” is a central theme of the WPA and its guiding philosophy for the achievement of full participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of social and economic life. An important principle underlying this theme is that issues concerning persons with disabilities should not be treated in isolation, but within the context of normal community services.


The proclamation in December 1982 of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992) prompted a flurry of activity designed to improve the situation and status of people with disabilities. Emphasis was placed on raising new financial resources, improving education and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and increasing their participation in the life of their communities and country.


The 1993 Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities were intended to complement the World Programme for Action Concerning Disabled People. The Standard Rules cover a wide range of areas of everyday life such as access to employment and education as well as rehabilitation and international cooperation. Although they are nonbinding, the Standard Rules require States to remove obstacles to equal participation and to actively involve non-governmental agencies (NGOs) dealing with disabilities as partners in this process. The Rules emphasize equal rights and equal obligations – not special rights, but

the achievement of equality on the same terms as all persons. The social model of disability thus became common thinking within CBR development, with a shift from service delivery (only) to more human rights models of CBR which include attention for equal opportunities, empowerment, building linkages and networks, ownership and an increased emphasis on advocacy as a tool to ensure that rights are being fulfilled.


At regional levels, there were various initiatives such as the declarations of regional ‘decades of disabled persons’.


The focus on disability has come into a new era with the development of the recent United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) coming into force. The ratification of the CRPD means - in the opinion of some disability activists - the end of centuries of a predominantly moral and medical approach to viewing disability. The Convention once ratified is a binding instrument on governments to ensure the protection of rights of their disabled citizens.