Logo of the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Logo of the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The United Nations says hundreds of millions of disabled people around the world continue to face colossal obstacles in their efforts to lead a meaningful life.  For the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which is commemorated on December 3, the United Nations has chosen the theme "Empowering Persons with Disabilities with the Right to Act."

The United Nations estimates that between 670 million and 800 million people, more than 10 percent of the world's population, are disabled or have a close family member who is.  About 80 percent of those who are disabled live in developing countries.

Despite these vast numbers, human rights advocates say people with disabilities largely go unnoticed.  They suffer from discrimination and stigmatization.  They are among the poorest people in the world.  They live on the margins of society.

"It is a continuous fight to us persons with disabilities.  We sleep with this disability and once we wake up in the morning, we wake up with disability.  It is a challenge for all persons with disability to continue,"  said Mohammed Al-Tarawneh, Chairman of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In 1976, when Al-Tarawneh was 16, he broke his back and suffered spinal cord injuries in a car crash in Baghdad.  But that did not stop him from becoming an engineer and an advocate for the rights of the disabled.  He says people with disabilities are as capable as any other human being. 

"We are as equal.  We are as productive and we can act and perform.  We have lawyers, doctors, Harvard graduates, engineers, what have you.  There is no limit.  The sky is the limit," he said. 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the newest and one of the fastest growing human rights treaties.  Since entering into force in 2008, 75 countries have ratified the convention.

The document does not directly establish new rights.  But its 50 articles cover issues aimed at improving the lives of the disabled.  It spells out rights dealing with education, health, work and freedom of movement among others. 

Al-Tarawneh says people with disabilities often are deprived of the right to act in a court of law.  He says they have their decision-making ability taken away by a person assigned to act on their behalf.

"Article 12 of the Convention, on equal recognition before the law, requires that in legal proceedings, persons with disabilities shall be provided with access to 'the support they may require in exercising their legal capacity.'  The right to act is not achieved when decisions are made in substitution of the individual by a legal guardian," he said. 

The United Nations and human-rights advocates are urging countries to put in place laws and policies that reflect the rights enshrined in the convention. 

They say disabled people are not looking for handouts and add that those with disabilities want to take charge of their lives and are capable of doing so if governments allow them to act on their own behalf.