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July 8, 2011

Disability rights throughout the world

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By Professor Michael Waterstone

With the passage of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, states across the world are thinking about how their laws and policies concerning people with disabilities comport with this new international standard. Although the United States was not a leader in the UN negotiations, and we have not yet ratified the Convention (although the Obama administration has signed the Convention and urged the Senate to ratify), one domestic based group has been an innovator in working with states on drafting, revising, and implementing disability laws.

This group is the Harvard Project on Disability ("HPOD"). Some nice profiles of their work can be found here and here. HPOD is working with governments and grassroots groups in countries across the world to help develop capacity and technical assistance. In so doing, it is training a new generation of advocates who have the capability to participate and lead a worldwide discussion.

Loyola Law School has collaborated with the Harvard Project on Disability on several projects. I have been fortunate to accompany team members from the Harvard Project on Disability to Vietnam and Bangladesh to assist in their work, with another trip to China planned in the Spring. It has been a transformative experience in my own life. I have seen how some of the most severely disabled, poorest, and most discriminated against people I have ever met can be the fiercest advocates, and rise above their circumstances with the goal of improving their own lives and those of future generations of people with disabilities. I have met government officials who truly would like to pass and enforce legislation which would make people with disabilities more fully members of the citizenry, and are working within their limited resources to do so. These experiences have reaffirmed my belief in international law - the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been a catalyst for change across the world, and has given advocates another important tool to use to get their governments to respond. And it has reminded me that what we do domestically matters - people all over the world look up to the United States on disability policy, and seek to replicate our successes and avoid our failures.