Tracing the United Nations’ and India’s commitment to disability rights | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Tracing the United Nations’ and India’s commitment to disability rights

Jun 14, 2024 06:57 PM IST

With a global disabled population of 70 million, constituting the world’s largest minority, the NDA’s third term presents a unique opportunity

The United Nations looked at disability from a welfare perspective in the initial years after its establishment in the mid-1950s. Its outlook was steeped in the medical model and driven by a paternalistic approach, which aimed to ‘normalise’ disabled bodies and not alter ableist structures.

The past eight years of working with the Rights of Persons with Disability Act have established that merely having a law is not enough (Virendra Singh Gosain/HT FILE PHOTO)) PREMIUM
The past eight years of working with the Rights of Persons with Disability Act have established that merely having a law is not enough (Virendra Singh Gosain/HT FILE PHOTO))

The inadequacies in the approach were later recognised and errors stemming from biases against persons with disabilities were rectified. Till the 1970s, remnants of the medical model persisted, wherein instruments granted disabled individuals rights based on the severity of their condition and the feasibility of accommodating them. Some protections were available to certain people in given contexts – which was a selective, rather than an unequivocal human rights approach.

However, it was these initial initiatives, like the 1975 Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, followed by the declaration of 1981 as the International Year and 1983 as the Decade of Disabled Persons that set the groundwork to establish the need for a comprehensive framework. It prompted studies that documented the extent of discrimination and marginalisation faced by persons with disabilities.

During the international decade, a proposal emerged for a distinct instrument to safeguard the rights of persons with disabilities. Its ratification would signify the culmination of this decade. There were several failed attempts to negotiate a binding international convention before the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) could be adopted.

The delayed focus on disability rights by the UN can be attributed to the extensive effort and time that went into establishing the premise that individuals with marginalised identities, including those with disabilities, deserve the same rights as others. It wasn’t until the third generation of UN human rights instruments that the marginalisation of specific groups, such as women, children, and people with disabilities, came to be formally recognised.

The biggest challenge, both historically and today, has been shifting the discourse from a medical-social welfare model, which fixates on inability and impairment, to a social-human rights model that emphasises capability and inclusion. The ongoing struggle is to adopt perspectives that place the issue of disability within societal conditions rather than viewing it as a result of an individual’s physical or intellectual deviations from the able-bodied man as the ‘norm’.

UNCRPD and COSP 17 – What was the agenda?

The UNCRPD, implemented in 2006, is an international agreement drawn up by states with the involvement of disabled people. It is recognised as the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, notable for the quickest negotiation among state parties and an unprecedented number of signatories on its inaugural day. By 2024, it had garnered 164 signatories and 191 state parties, setting a historic milestone for achieving widespread support in a very short time.

The agreement is the reflection of a shared commitment to enhance human rights for persons with disabilities, often marginalised in societies governed by ableist norms and understanding. The coming of the Convention was seen as a progressive paradigm that took away the discussion of disability rights from a medical-social welfare model that fixates on inability and impairment to a social-human rights model that instead focuses on capability and inclusion.

The convention, spread over 26 substantive rights provisions, aims to promote, protect, and ensure full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disability, and promotes respect for inherent ‘dignity’. It lays down the legal obligation of signatory countries to protect and promote the rights outlined in the convention.

Since the adoption of the UNCRPD in 2006, state parties annually gather to discuss the progress and key challenges in implementing the convention. This year marks the 17th such Conference of State Parties (COSP 17) to the UNCRPD, held at the UN headquarters with participants from all over the world.

The conference focused on rethinking disability inclusion in the current international context and ahead of the Summit of the Future. This year’s agenda includes – international cooperation for technology innovation and transfer, addressing persons with disabilities in risk situations and emergencies, and promoting their rights to decent work and sustainable livelihoods.

India’s ongoing commitment to the UNCRPD

India signed the UNCRPD as early as 2007, without any reservations or subjective interpretations. At that time, disability issues were being governed by the erstwhile Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995. It provided rights to a very limited number of disabilities and recognised only seven disabilities and offered limited rights to them.

Soon after signing the UNCRPD, activists rallied demands to align with India’s commitment to the Convention. The same was reflected in the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12), wherein it was stated: “India being a signatory of UNCRPD, it is now obligatory upon us to incorporate the essence of the Convention in our planning, implementation, monitoring, and review processes. [...] There is an urgent need to review all the four disability legislations and to amend them suitably to bring them in consonance with UNCRPD.”

After making several attempts to amend the 1995 Act, India realised that given its origin in a charity approach, any number of amendments could not change the inherent inadequacies. Consequently, after years of advocacy, the government constituted a committee in April 2010 under the chairmanship of Dr Sudha Kaul, who then began the work on the new law.

This effort culminated in the present Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPD) Act, 2016, which marked a significant shift in India’s approach and adopted the key principles of the UNCRPD in its very preamble. Now, at least in India’s legal framework, disability was no longer seen as a purely personal “problem” but rather a challenge that needed to be addressed by the State and society through suitable accommodations.

The future

The past eight years of working with the RPD Act have established that merely having a law is not enough. Its implementation must be closely monitored in all states, given that the law leaves several provisions for states to address and implement. The law must be complemented by well-thought policy initiatives, political will, and administrative proactiveness.

UNCRPD is a revolution for global disability rights, and COSP 17 is a vital response to that call. It’s not just a meeting but a chance to assess progress—what policies exist and what challenges remain for people with disabilities.

Arman Ali, a delegate at COSP 17 and the executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPDEP) said: “These conferences act as external watchdogs, ensuring governments remain accountable. With this government’s re-election, India has the potential to become a global disability leader, setting standards, becoming a model for others, and demonstrating effective implementation of inclusive policies across diverse landscapes. Finding solutions for the world’s disabled population requires a global effort, and COSP 17 is a crucial step in that direction”.

Fulfilling Promises to Persons with Disabilities

Yojna Patel, deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, delivered India’s statement at COSP-17, acknowledging the challenges -- physical, financial and psychological, faced by approximately 27 million people living with disabilities in India.

However, amid India’s strides in aligning with the UNCRPD and efforts to facilitate voting for persons with disabilities, India must also be cautious about the neglect of PwDs in the socio-political sphere. The significant concerns of the absence of parliamentary representation and disability cells in political parties reveal their ongoing systemic invisibility and marginalisation, despite the RPD Act.

As we reflect on India’s pivotal role in shaping a more inclusive future, it becomes clear that the time for meaningful action is now. With a global disabled population of 70 million, constituting the world’s largest minority, the NDA’s third term presents a unique opportunity. Over 17-year-old commitment to the UNCRPD must translate into tangible progress for the disabled community, both in policy and practice. It is time to think of inclusion in every facet of public life—be it elections, employment, education, or healthcare.

The state’s obligation to uphold and implement the RPD Act necessitates reaching every individual, ensuring a society where everyone can participate and thrive, free from the constraints of ableist barriers.


Shrutika Pandey is a lawyer and researcher specialising in access to justice. She engages in developing strategies to advance the rights of undertrial prisoners through legal representation, research, and advocacy. The author was amongst a team of lawyers who represented the petitioner in court. The views expressed are personal.

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