United Nations Conference of the State Parties to the CRPD: The Power of Unlikely Advocates

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Written by Akshan de Alwis, UN Correspondent

June marked the Seventh Conference of the State Parties (COSP) to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), with over a thousand disability rights advocates and senior government representatives convening at the United Nations to discuss the further implementation of the CRPD and the future of the disability rights advocacy movement. The CRPD, hailed as the first human rights convention of the 21st century, was drafted in 2006, and to date has been ratified by 147 nations. This was the first convention signed by the Obama administration in early 2009. The CRPD was designed to transform the worldview of persons with disabilities from objects of charity to individuals who are capable of claiming their rights and acting as functioning members of society. Created in partnership with persons with disabilities, the CRPD is a force for change around the world.

On the last day of the COSP conference, the representatives were treated to a panel of rather unlikely advocates. When it comes to representation in most high-level meetings on any field, youth are often the least likely to be present. This is doubly the case when it comes to youth with disabilities. However, for the morning session on June 12th, five youth disability rights advocates were given a chance to prove the impact and potential of youth with disabilities on the international campaign for a more inclusive society.

One of the most powerful speakers that day was Lucy Meyer, a fifteen-year-old two time gold medalist at the Special Olympics. Lucy, who has cerebral palsy, shared her achievements of being elected vice president of her eighth grade class, participating in the Special Olympics, and meeting with political leaders, including President Obama, on Capitol Hill. She explained that she struggled to accomplish these goals so that everyone can share her dream of a world where we can look past disability and see the inherent human potential of the individual. Most importantly, she wanted to ensure that persons with disabilities are not invisible, that everyone is given the chance to participate at the highest level in society. Her speech received a standing ovation from the government representatives and advocates at COSP, and thanks to her and the four other student leaders’ words, youth with disabilities was at the forefront for the rest of the conference.

Indeed, “inclusion” was the hot phrase of COSP—mainly because for the longest time, persons with disabilities were almost completely excluded from the development agenda of the United Nations.

In 2000, the Millennium Summit hosted by the United Nations would be the largest gathering of world leaders in history. All of the leaders had the same goal: creating a unified development agenda for the United Nations as the world entered the 21st century. The result of this landmark summit is the now famous United Nations Millennium Declaration, which created the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight goals, all with the target date of 2015, were designed to help countries and leading civil society groups meet the needs of some of the most disenfranchised minorities of the world.

The MDGs have been lauded as one of the most important catalysts of change during the last decade, with a number of nations making significant progress to achieving the goals set out in 2000. However, the MDGs have been severely criticized—not just by conservative thinkers who oppose intervention by international organizations in local economies and legislation, but by the minority groups that the MDGs target.

One particular minority that has vocally critiqued the MDGs is the disability community. The source of the frustration comes from the complete failure to include the voices of the very participants that the MDGs aimed to assist. Disability is shockingly absent from the MDGs, and very few civil society groups that represent persons with disabilities were present during the crafting of the MDGs. The end product is a development agenda that ignores the plight of persons with disabilities, much in the way that the general public turns a blind eye to disability.

Despite persons with disabilities being the largest minority in the world, it is a group that is most at risk. The vast majority of persons with disabilities, around 80 percent, live in the developing world. Persons with disabilities were shown by the World Bank to comprise 15 to 20 percent of the poorest individuals in developing countries. Even in the global north, the situation for persons with disabilities is dire—2010 census data revealed that 28 percent of Americans with disabilities live in poverty. In the United States, having a disability makes one twice as likely to be living in poverty.

As 2015 fast approaches, and the MDGs are set to expire, many advocates are excited to hopefully get an opportunity to influence the post-2015 development agenda. The inclusion of persons with disabilities in the creation of the post-2015 development agenda is absolutely vital in ensuring that the UN is able to create a set of realistic and sustainable goals that truly meet the needs of those they are trying to target. And so far there has been definite progress, with the Open Working Group of the General Assembly identifying a number of critical areas where disability plays a role in the forefront. This time around, disability will surely not be forgotten.

Over the course of the three days of COSP, many participants began to recognize a rising force in the disability rights movement: youth with disabilities. About five percent of all children have some form of disability, and according to the United Nations, “youth with disabilities are amongst the most marginalized and poorest of all the world’s youth.” However, this group is slowly becoming one of the most dynamic sources of change in disability rights work around the world.

What sets the youth apart is their ability to use innovative advocacy methods to create movements and dialogue surrounding an issue. When it came to capitalizing on social media like Facebook and Twitter, a number of disability organization leaders remarked at the conference that the adult counterparts were sorely lacking. Finally, youth with disabilities are the future of the disability rights movement, and including them in debates and discussion helps to create a generation of persons with disabilities that do indeed have the ability to claim their rights. Lucy’s voice is what will be remembered the most after the high-level government representatives of the COSP return to their embassies.

Akshan de Alwis attends Columbia University as a John Jay Scholar. He is Diplomatic Courier’s UN Correspondent.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s September/October 2014 print edition.