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Communications of the ACM

Broadening participation

The Impact of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Impact of the United Nations Convention, illustration

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is an international treaty that outlines the rights of persons with disabilities and how nations who sign and ratify the convention should ensure those rights. The CRPD with its Optional Protocol were adopted in on December 13, 2006. To date, 158 countries signed and 138 have ratified the convention. According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately one billion people in the world who have a disability of one kind or another. A disability may be congenital or happen during life through wars, accidents, diseases, and even life-saving medical procedures. Everyone who becomes old tends to become disabled. There was a time, and it is still the case in some parts of the world, when those with disabilities were hidden away and considered to be a burden on society. Over time there has been a realization that disability is just another dimension in the diversity of human life and that people with disabilities deserve the same human rights and dignity that those without a disability have. The CRPD is an attempt to codify those rights and delineate how they might be achieved.

In this column, I focus on two ideas in the CRPD that speak to us as computer professionals:

  • What the CRPD says about technology for people with disabilities.
  • What the CRPD says about including people with disabilities in the technology workforce.

These two themes are intertwined because technology can help enable people who have a disability to become students and eventual creators of the next generation of technology. Further, with more people with disabilities in the technology workforce, it is more likely the technology developed will be accessible from the beginning, not as an afterthought. The challenge is: how can we as computer professionals, and collectively in our organizations, help realize the vision of the CRPD. I begin with an overview of the CRPD.

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What Is the CRPD?

An excellent source of information about the CRPD is the United Nations Enable website.a In 2001, the General Assembly of the United Nations established an Ad Hoc Committee "to consider proposals for a comprehensive and integral international convention to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities, based on the holistic approach in the work done in the fields of social development, human rights and non-discrimination and taking into account the recommendations of the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission for Social Development." After five years of work by representatives of many countries and groups such as Disabled Peoples' International the Convention was finalized and opened for signature and ratification by the nations of the world.

Although the CRPD is directed at national governments and public policy, parts of it are a blueprint for computing organizations.

The CRPD has 50 articles with the purpose stated in part in Article 1: 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.

The CRPD governed by the principles stated in Article 3:

  1. Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one's own choices, and independence of persons;
  2. Non-discrimination;
  3. Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
  4. Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
  5. Equality of opportunity;
  6. Accessibility;
  7. Equality between men and women;
  8. Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.

It is important to note the CRDP represents the social model of disability, not the medical model that focuses on functional impairments. By contrast, the social model reflects the reality that most long-term functional impairments will not have a cure in one's lifetime, so it is important to think of the person with a disability holistically, as just another member of humankind in its great variety.

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What the CRPD Says About Technology

Technology plays a significant role in providing access to the activities of life, employment, and social well-being for people with disabilities. This is recognized in eight articles of which I point out two that are relevant to the computing field. In Article 4, General Obligations, there is one section that addresses technology: g. To undertake or promote research and development of, and to promote the availability and use of new technologies, including information and communications technologies, mobility aids, devices and assistive technologies, suitable for persons with disabilities, giving priority to technologies at an affordable cost;

In Article 9, Accessibility, there are two more sections that address technology: g. Promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet; h. Promote the design, development, production and distribution of accessible information and communications technologies and systems at an early stage, so that these technologies and systems become accessible at minimum cost.

Article 4.g. recognizes that research and development on new technologies will continue and that most people in the world, especially those with disabilities, are poor. Thus, a priority should be given to technologies that have a lower cost. Article 4.g. basically states that the Internet and other information and communication technologies should be accessible. It is generally true that all popular browsers support accessibility, but individual websites may not be accessible because they were not designed following accessibility standards like WCAG 2.0.2 Article 4.h. says accessibility should be built into technology from the beginning, not as an afterthought. This last point is consistent with the arguments that Vint Cerf made in his Communications President's Letter column entitled "Why Is Accessibility So Hard?"1 Fortunately, some companies such as Apple have decided that accessibility is important enough to build it into their mainstream products. One form of this is Apple's VoiceOver screen reader that allows a blind iPhone or iPad user to navigate and read the touch screen easily by employing intuitive gestures and text-to-speech technology.

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What the CRPD Says About Workforce Inclusion

Article 27, Work and employment, directly addresses workforce inclusion in this statement: States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labor market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities.

It is stressed further in the article that persons with disabilities should have the opportunity for all kinds of employment in the public and private sectors, and as owners of their own businesses. Considering that technology is so important to the well-being of people with disabilities, it is natural they would be attracted to and would be very valuable in computing fields. This is not to say all computer professionals with disabilities should all be working on accessible technology. The way to think of it is that if there were more computer professionals with disabilities, then because of their expertise and perspectives, it is more likely that new technologies will meet the needs of those one billion people who have disabilities. Realize too that all of us as we age are increasingly likely to join this group of one billion. These are a lot of customers.

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Implications of the CRPD to ACM and Other Computing Organizations

Although the CRPD is directed at national governments and public policy, parts of it are a blueprint for computing organizations. ACM is the largest organization of computing professionals in the world, which means it should be leading the computing field in the right direction with regard to inclusion of people with disabilities in the computing workforce. ACM sponsors the annual ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, which in the past few years has recognized disability in its scope. One of the featured speakers at 2014 conference is the famous blind computer scientist Chieko Asakawa. Three special interest groups SIGCHI, SIGCSE, and SIGACCESS are making systemic changes to become more welcoming and accessible to members with disabilities at their conferences. A notable new feature of the recent ACM SIGACCESS International Symposium on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS) was a user experience panel of three panelists: one blind, one deaf-blind, and one with severe motor and speech disabilities. All three described their personal experiences with technology as well as that of others with their disability. This direct interaction of disabled users of technology with accessibility researchers was a powerful encounter.

Many students with disabilities have a need for technology so they should be involved in its creation.

In the U.S., the relatively new organization the National Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology (CMD-IT), under the leadership of Valerie Taylor, has taken the lead in including disability in its mission and title. Most of the major activities of CMD-IT are in workforce development and are welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities.

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Role of AccessComputing

AccessComputing (Alliance for Access to Computing Careers) is a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded alliance that started in 2006.b Its goal is to increase the number and success of students pursuing computing careers. AccessComputing has three main approaches toward achieving its goal.

  • Direct interventions with students with disabilities through workshops, internships, and other activities.
  • Institutional change through capacity building institutes and working with departments and organizations to help them become more welcoming and accessible to those students.
  • Information dissemination through articles, webpages, online courses, and searchable knowledgebase.

AccessComputing has 35 institutional and organizational partners and many more collaborators who share the same goal and work on activities toward that goal. Because of the close relationship between technology and disability it makes sense for an organization like AccessComputing to exist. Many students with disabilities have a need for technology so they should be involved in its creation. This AccessComputing model is applicable in all the nations who have signed or ratified the CRPD. As the Principal Investigator for AccessComputing, I invite readers from around the world to contact me to help you start your own AccessComputing Alliance or let me know of some other similar program in your own country.

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1. Cerf, V.G. Why is accessibility so hard? Commun. ACM 55, 11 (Oct. 2012), 7.

2. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0),

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Richard E. Ladner ( is Professor in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. He is Principal Investigator for AccessComputing, an NSF-funded alliance with the goal of increasing the success and number of students with disabilities in computing fields.

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a. See United Nations Enable;

b. See AccessComputing;

The writing of this column was supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. CNS-1042260. Any questions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. federal government.

Copyright held by Author/Owner(s).

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2014 ACM, Inc.


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