A debate is scheduled for 24 November 2022 on the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The debate will be opened by Marsha de Cordova MP (Labour).

The United Nations (UN) International Day of Persons with Disabilities takes place every year on 3 December. It was proclaimed in 1992 by UN General Assembly resolution 47/3 (PDF). This resolution invited member states and relevant organizations to “intensify their efforts aimed at sustained effective action with a view to improving the situation of persons with disabilities”.

The UN’s proclamation came after it had declared 1981 the International Year of Disabled Persons, and the following decade, 1982-92, the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons.

The theme of this year’s day is “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world”.

This landing page provides detail on the UN’s Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, models of disability, the UK’s disabled population and UK Government policies towards disabled people.

UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities

Beginning in the 1980s the UN began to formulate various programmes designed to further the rights of disabled people globally: the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons (PDF) (1982) and the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities of Persons with Disabilities (1993).

In December 2001 Mexico proposed establishing a committee to consider proposals for an “international convention to…protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities”. On 13 December 2006 the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Article one of the UN CRPD lays out its purpose:

The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.

Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

As of 6 May 2022, the UN CRPD has 164 signatories. The United Kingdom ratified the UN CRPD in 2009.

Signatory states’ implementation of the UN CRPD should be monitored at both the domestic and international levels. Article 33 explains that states must set up “independent monitoring mechanisms”. These are then complimented by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is an independent body of experts that signatory states must submit reports to every two years.

More information about the UK’s implementation of the UN CRPD can be found in the Library’s briefing paper on the subject.

Defining disability

There are two main models of disability: medical and social. The medical model of disability focuses on the impairments an individual may suffer from and the medical management of these difficulties. The Equality Act 2010’s definition of disability is based on this:

(1) A person (P) has a disability if—

(a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and

(b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The Equality Act 2010 repealed in England & Wales and Scotland, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. The Equality Act’s definition of disability is broadly identical to the definitions used in this earlier legislation. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is still the main disability discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland, together with the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

However, some stakeholders have criticised the medical model of disability as focusing too much on individual impairments instead of the societal barriers faced by people with physical impairments

The social model of disability instead suggests that people are disabled by barriers in society. The UN CRPD, whilst not providing an explicit definition of disability, foregrounds the social model in its 2007 Handbook for Parliamentarians on the UN CRPD (PDF):

The Convention’s approach to disability also emphasizes the significant impact that attitudinal and environmental barriers in society may have on the enjoyment of the human rights of persons with disabilities. In other words, a person in a wheelchair might have difficulties taking public transport or gaining employment, not because of his/her condition, but because there are environmental obstacles, such as inaccessible buses or staircases in the workplace, that impede his/her access.

The Library’s research briefings on Disability discrimination and A short introduction to equality law provide more detail about the UK’s anti-disability discrimination legislation.

The UK’s disabled population

An estimated 14.6 million people in the UK had a disability in 2020/21.

Since 2019 the Office for National Statistics has produced an annual series of data releases that aim to analyse the Outcomes of disabled people in the UK across different areas of life.

The table below summarises data from the most recent release. This shows that inequalities between disabled and non-disabled people exist across multiple sectors: education, employment, housing, well-being and experiences of crime.

 Outcomes for disabled people

The Library’s briefing UK disability statistics: Prevalence and life experiences provides analysis of more disability data from across a range of sources.

Disabled people and the UK Government

The Equality Act 2010, which received Royal Assent on 8 April 2010, is the UK’s principal anti-discrimination statute.  Under this Act disability became one of the nine “protected characteristics” that are within the scope of the new unitary equality law regime.

The Act prohibits direct disability discrimination, indirect disability discrimination, discrimination arising from disability, disability harassment and victimisation. As stated previously, the Library’s briefing on Disability discrimination provides more detail about this piece of legislation.

Government policy towards disabled people is directed by the National Disability Strategy. This document was published in July 2021. It is a cross-government strategy designed to improve the lives of disabled people.

However, this strategy was declared unlawful by the High Court in January 2022. Chloe Smith, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said, in a 5 September 2022 response to a written question, that 14 policies from the strategy have been paused as a result of the Court’s decision.

In a letter dated 27 September 2022, the then Minister pointed to the following policies as evidence of the Government’s commitment to improving the lives of disabled people:

In less than a year, we have delivered an additional £1 billion, in 2022-23, for children and young people with more complex needs; launched an online advice hub on employment rights for disabled people; introduced a new Passenger Assist App supporting thousands of users; enhanced rights for disabled people through a new revised Victim’s Code; and published a new National Model Design Code to make housing more accessible. Our network of Ministerial Disability Champions has led and focussed on this work alongside other departmental priorities.

We have supported the introduction of the British Sign Language Act and the Down Syndrome Act in the last Parliament and have seen 1.3 million more disabled people in work than in 2017 – hitting a government commitment five years early. We want to create more opportunities for disabled people to participate and thrive and we will be publishing our Health and Disability White Paper later this year which will set out more important work.

The Library’s briefing on the National Disability Strategy provides more information about the strategy. Details of specific devolved strategies can be found in Disability strategies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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