Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Precedents and Presidents: Broadening the Horizons of Disability Law

This is a blog post from one of our recent alumni, Andrew Haas, J.D., Class of 2010, who is doing international human rights work this summer with the Centre for Disability Law and Policy (CDLP) in Galway, Ireland.

This summer I had the honor of working with the Centre for Disability Law and Policy (CDLP) in Galway, Ireland. My assignment was to conduct research on people with intellectual disabilities in prison systems around the world as it relates to a new movement in international disability law after the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006. This included a week long "Summer School" that provided an intensive training on the CRPD and its application. The 6-day program, hosted by CDLP and the Harvard Disability Law Project, brought in experts from every corner of the globe, all eager to discover new ways to implement this new legal instrument. Many of the attendees and speakers were part of the original drafters of the CRPD and offered invaluable insights into the treaty and its intended purpose. The President of Ireland, a human rights advocate of his own accord, even gave an inspiring inaugural address to kick-off the conference, and was particularly warm and engaging with the students (I've got pictures of us chatting it up). Interestingly, neither Ireland nor the United States[1] has ratified the treaty, though both nations have signed and positioned legal scholars and lawyers at the forefront of its implementation.

The CRPD proposes the large-scale notion of a "paradigm shift" in the legal perspective on disability law. Under the CRPD, disability law is a human rights issue. It is grounded in principles of upholding equality and human dignity. This new wave of legal theory, or paradigm shift, does not in itself create new rights to be specially applied only to this group. Rather, the CRPD contends to be an assertion of rights that are summarily denied to people with disabilities, but held by all. For example, Article 12 of the CRPD mandates that "persons with disabilities enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life." This right to legal capacity, the lifeblood of the Convention, is routinely denied to people with disabilities for myriad reasons when coming into contact with the legal system. But without legal capacity, there is no hope for equality. This assertion discards even the progressive ideals that we hold in the U.S. of meeting the needs of people with disabilities. Rather, it aims to put all people on equal footing with proper support in determining each person's will and intent instead of merely being objects of social programming or paternalistic courts, so people can be the experts in their own lives.

It was inspiring to see so much optimism and passion in a room full of international lawyers and the CRPD offers a truly remarkable opportunity to create change. Broadening the horizons of disability law as a human rights issue can be used not only as a tool to further the rights for people with disabilities, but a powerful tool to further human rights for all. I really enjoyed spending the summer in Ireland and working with the CDLP, a major spearhead of the paradigm shift. It was a grand experience.

[1]The United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on July 12, 2012 at which Committee Chairman John Kerry, along with John McCain, Bob Dole, and disability rights advocacy groups urged ratification of the treaty.

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