Approximately 40.7 million people in the United States and more than one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, lead self-affirming lives and define themselves above and beyond what others may term their disability. In fact, the term “disability” is laden with factual, prejudicial, and emotional baggage that serves to further marginalize the people to whom it is applied. Regardless of the stigma and alienation they face, people who are differently abled share the same human rights as everyone else.
Since the mid-1900s, people with disabilities have pushed for their basic human rights. These include the recognition of disability or divergence as an aspect of identity that influences the experiences of an individual, not as the sole-defining feature of a person. They also include their rights to education, housing, employment, medical care, and accommodations in both the public and private spheres.
The ongoing struggle for social, cultural, economic and political rights in the disabled community reflects the blatant and systemic disregard for human life that permeates U.S. policies and institutions and violates the most foundational tenet of human rights: that all are born free and equal. The systemic exclusion and oppression of people with disabilities in capitalist societies such as the U.S. is compounded by its foundations in white supremacist, patriarchal and classist constructions of inherent superiority weaponized to dehumanize entire groups of people and legitimize their oppression. That supremacist ideology made its way back into mainstream discourse around the late 19th century with the birth of the eugenics movement in the U.S. and its special targeting of people with disabilities.
It should come as no surprise that many differently abled people remain more likely to experience adverse economic outcomes, prejudice and discrimination; and for people who are already marginalized by their race, gender, ethnicity, or poverty, being differently abled than others diminishes their opportunities to live life to its fullest. The law allows them to be paid less than minimum wage, while their employers reap the benefits of what amounts to slave labor.
This section examines the struggle for inclusion and overwhelming marginalization that characterizes the struggle for disability rights in the United States:
- Speaking of disability introduces readers to the lived experiences of people with disabilities under capitalism as “a daily confrontation with society and its prejudices.”
- Disability rights are human rights – and they affect all of us explores the intersecting struggles of people with disabilities against profound human rights violations compounded by race, class, homelessness, police violence and mass incarceration.
Violations of international human rights law
Identified articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights violated by the United States Federal Government:
- Article 1: that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights
- Article 2: that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as disability
- Article 3: that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security
- Article 4: that no one should be held in slavery or servitude
- Article 5: that no one should be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
- Article 6: that everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law
- Article 7: that all are equal before the law and entitled without discrimination to equal protection of the law
- Article 9: that no one should be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile
- Article 11: that everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty
- Article 13: that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within a state
- Article 16: that everyone has the right to found a family, and that the family is the most fundamental unit of society that is entitled to protection by the state
- Article 21: that everyone has the right to political participation in their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives; that everyone has the right to equal access to public services in their country; and that the will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government as expressed through periodic elections and universal suffrage
- Article 22: that everyone has the right to social security and the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable to their dignity and the full realization of their human development
- Article 23: that everyone has the right to employment, equal pay and economic conditions sufficient for a dignified existence
- Article 24: that everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including the reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay
- Article 25: that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services
- Article 26: that everyone has the right to an education and the full realization of their human development
- Article 27: that everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits
Identified core international human rights treaties violated by the United States Federal Government:
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights elaborates further on the civil and political rights and freedoms listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The treaty requires states to the promotion of equal access to civil and political rights without distinction of any kind, such as disability.
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes a universal framework for the protection and preservation of the most basic economic, social and cultural rights inherent to all human beings, including the right to work in just and favorable conditions, to social protection, to an adequate standard of living, to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health, to education and to the enjoyment and benefits of cultural freedom. The United States has not ratified this treaty.
- Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment prohibits torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The treaty requires states to take legislative, administrative and judicial measures to prevent such acts from taking place during activities that often target people with disabilities, such as arbitrary arrests, detentions and incarcerations, as well as in the training of police (civil or military) and other officials involved in an arrest, detention or interrogation.
- Convention on the Rights of Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history not ratified by the United States, establishes a universal framework for the protection and advancement of the rights of children to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity. It affirms the responsibility of the state to protect children by ensuring that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for their care conform with acceptable standards of safety, health and equal protection before the law necessary for the full realization of their human development.
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is known as the “first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century” to protect and ensure the full and equal access of all people with disabilities to their fundamental human rights, widely recognized by the international community. The United States has not ratified this treaty.
By William Camacaro (National Co-Coordinator)
“There is a growing movement to rethink disability. As many now say, ‘we see true ability where others only see disability.’ As my colleague James Jordan says, the language is evolving. Nonetheless, the harsh realities people with disabilities experience in their marginalization, exploitation and oppression remain the same. That will not change until we rethink the way we treat people with disabilities.” (Read more)
By James Jordan (National Co-Coordinator)
“The conditions of people living with disabilities are often hidden from view of the general public because of lack of access and because so many are locked into homelessness or sequestered in sheltered workshops and living situations segregated from the rest of society, in jails, in segregated classrooms, denied access to housing.
The reality for people living with disabilities is routine exclusion and systemic human rights abuses. For those who do not identify as persons with disabilities — at least not yet — we make a tremendous mistake if we think this situation does not affect us.” (Read more)
This chapter is part of a series in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the United States: 2023 Report
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