Building Disability Rights through Inclusive Constitutions

A man wearing professional clothing speaks into a microphone. He is surrounded by several other men sitting in the room to the side and behind him.

An Inclusive Process

A variety of processes can be used to draft a constitution. Drafts may be put together by an elected group or proposed by a group selected by the government. While drafting a constitution, a government or other drafting body may convene meetings with civil society. These meetings or workshops are participatory processes which include feedback from the community. Consultations are the primary method by which DPOs can influence the drafting of the constitution. In some countries, drafting bodies have asked that citizens write letters with recommendations.

Elements of an Inclusive Constitution

  • Include a section on disability rights.
  • Mainstream disability rights throughout the document.
  • Recognize international commitments to disability rights.
  • Include disability rights principles in devolved government structures.

Rights of persons with disabilities should be clearly specified somewhere in the constitution. The content of those rights can be influenced by international agreements and, importantly, by recommendations of DPOs in the country.

People with disabilities should have the same rights as all other citizens. In sections such as the preamble, bill of rights, and equality and nondiscrimination clauses, it is important to include language that acknowledges rights of people with disabilities.

Over 90% of UN member states have signed or ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Many countries have also signed agreements of regional bodies, such as the Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities through the Organization of American States, to promote the rights of persons with disabilities. These arguments can be leveraged to advocate for greater rights domestically in order to ensure that those rights are guaranteed in practice.

Other human rights treaties also sometimes uphold the rights of certain groups of people with disabilities. For example, Article 2 and Article 23 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically mention the rights of children with disabilities.

In some countries, certain responsibilities for protecting rights might be shared with local government structures. Rights of people with disabilities should be incorporated at all levels of government, whether local or national.

Making It Meaningful

Each constitution is unique, developed under an individual set of circumstances. For this reason, the most critical element of constitution-building is contextualization. DPOs’ recommendations for the drafting body should be specific to the country and should be developed through a process inclusive of women and men with a variety of disabilities and experiences. It is important for the disability community to agree to key priorities for the constitution and advocate with their government as one voice. This list includes some questions that DPOs should discuss and agree on before advocating with government:

  • How might a section on the rights of people with disabilities be incorporated? What details should be included regarding these rights? Are there clearly-detailed rights specifically for people from other marginalized groups in the previous constitution and/or current draft? What lessons can be learned from the way other marginalized groups are addressed in the previous constitution and/or current draft?
  • What does equal access mean in this context? What provisions might need to be in place to ensure that people with disabilities can participate fully? Are there proposed laws that protect access for other marginalized groups, such as women or ethnic minorities? What about access to voting or to courts?
  • Should there be provisions that guarantee access to citizenship for people with disabilities? Is citizenship conferred at birth? What about people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities?
  • Does it make sense to create a national body (such as a National Council on Persons with Disabilities) to advise government stakeholders on rights and connect with DPOs?
  • Does the document reflect the right of all citizens to participate in public life through voting, running for office, etc.?
  • Would a quota be appropriate? If so, are there examples from other countries in the region? If it is decided that it is appropriate, would the quota cover things like representation in parliament and/or government hiring procedures?
  • Do candidates with disabilities have access to funding? Should there be a dedicated fund to create conditions that enable people with disabilities to run for office?
  • What is the intersection of rights for other marginalized groups and rights for persons with disabilities? How might the constitution reflect rights of women and girls with disabilities, indigenous peoples with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people, or people with disabilities from ethnic or religious minorities?

For more information, please see Creating a Policy Platform, Lobbying as an Advocacy Skill, and Utilizing Quotas to Increase Political Participation of People with Disabilities.