01 April, 2021

What is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

The United Nations (UN) aims to promote and protect a broad range of human rights. Our Advocacy Manager, Louise O’Leary, takes a look at one of its central human rights instruments and explores what it means for people experiencing mental health difficulties.

What is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

What is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is an international human rights treaty. It focuses specifically on the rights of people with disabilities, and sets out the obligations that countries must meet to make sure disability rights are fulfilled. Ireland signed up to the treaty in 2007 and it was formally agreed to, or ratified, in Ireland in 2018; you can watch a short video about the UNCRPD and Ireland here.

The rights listed within the UNCRPD are similar to other human rights conventions, but include extra attention to the circumstances of people with disabilities. For example, Article 27 of the UNCRPD is about the right to work, and details the right to reasonable accommodation in the workplace for a person with a disability; this means that employers must consider measures which could be put in place to support a person with a disability in a role, such as practical changes to the working environment or to a person’s work schedule.

Persons with disabilities are defined in the UNCRPD as including “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”.

The UNCRPD is based on the social model of disability. This model recognises disability as resulting from the interaction of impairments with environmental barriers. These barriers can include problems with attitudes in society, such as stigma and discrimination, or physical barriers in the built environment, such as buildings not being fully accessible to everyone.

What does the UNCRPD mean for people with mental health difficulties?

Some of the ways the UNCRPD is relevant to people with mental health difficulties are:

  • Inclusion of long-term mental health difficulties as a disability

    Under the UNCRPD, long-term mental health difficulties are recognised as a disability. The term ‘psychosocial disability’ is used at times in the language of the treaty to refer to mental health difficulties. This means that there is now a greater level of attention to, and protection for, the rights of people with ongoing mental health difficulties.

  • Changes to law

    In Ireland, signing up to the UNCRPD has directly led to important changes in laws which may affect some people with mental health difficulties, such as the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act.

    A special service called the Decision Support Service (DSS) is being set up because of this, which will offer a range of supports for people who may need assistance at different times in making decisions. This includes providing information on Advance Healthcare Directives; the DSS explains that an Advance Healthcare Directive is a document that “lets you set out your wishes regarding medical and healthcare treatment in case you are unable to make these decisions in the future. Importantly, it lets you write down any treatment you do not want.”

    The requirements of the UNCRPD have also made the reform of the Mental Health Act more urgent, as some parts of this law are at odds with the convention.

  • Rights-based mental health services

    The UNCRPD marks an important shift to recognising that mental health services should be human rights-based. For example, the national mental health policy, Sharing the Vision, highlights the importance of the UNCRPD in relation to issues like involuntary admissions. Another important part of the rights-based services the UNCRPD calls for is increased participation by the people who use services in their development and delivery.

  • Greater participation and representation

    The UNCRPD emphasises that people with disabilities must be consulted and have active involvement in the development of laws and policies which affect them.

    Importantly, this means there are now more ways that the voices of people with experiences of mental health difficulties are being heard. These include the Disability Participation and Consultation Network launched by the Government last year, and the Disability Advisory Committee which works with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC).

  • Increased emphasis on discrimination

    A key principle of the UNCRPD, and one that underlies all human rights, is that human rights should be enjoyed by people without discrimination. The convention recognises that “discrimination against any person on the basis of disability is a violation of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person”. This includes discrimination on the basis of mental health.

How is Ireland's progress on the UNCRPD reviewed?

How is Ireland's progress on the UNCRPD reviewed?

Each country that has ratified the treaty takes part in a review process every four years with a special treaty body, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to see what is being done to make sure the rights of people with disabilities are being protected.

For this process, the government submits a report to the Committee explaining the actions being taken to implement the UNCRPD, and also takes part in a meeting with the Committee to address different issues.

Disabled people’s organisations and other groups, such as national human rights bodies, also submit reports to put forth independent views on progress within their countries. These are sometimes referred to as ‘shadow reports’.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities examines these reports and prepares observations, concerns and recommendations for a country’s attention, which highlight areas that need to be corrected or improved.

In Ireland, the IHREC is responsible for independently monitoring the implementation of the UNCRPD. It has set up a Disability Advisory Committee to help do this, and to ensure that the experiences and voices of people with disabilities are central to the process.

You can learn more about different UN treaty bodies and how they monitor human rights compliance here.

Where can I find more information?

Where can I find more information?

Mental Health Reform is one organisation which focuses on the UNCRPD and mental health, and often holds events to hear from people on this topic. It has published a short guide to the UNCRPD, along with an easy-to-read introduction to the UNCRPD.

You can find a brief guide to the UNCRPD by IHREC here. IHREC also shares information about equality rights in Ireland and how we are protected from discrimination on the basis of disability.

You can learn more about particular rights within the convention through a range of short animations from Mental Health Europe.