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Disability Rights are Human Rights: Thoughts from Emily Ladau

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

A Brief History of Human Rights

Here we are, nearing the end of the year, already in the middle of December. Which just so happens to be Universal Human Rights Month, with Human Rights Day recognized and celebrated by the United Nations (UN) on Dec. 10.

So, what are human rights?

According to the UN, human rights are “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” Although the concept of human rights has been around for longer than most of us can imagine, some dating it back to Hammurabi’s Code while other’s consider it to have started with the Cyrus Cylinder, the modern understanding of human rights was first put down in writing by the UN in 1948, as a response to WWII, in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Today, the UDHR and other treaties serve to hold nations responsible for honoring and protecting people’s rights.

Disability Rights as Human Rights

While the UDHR strives to defend human rights and does so in many ways, one area of rights that tends to be overlooked is disability rights.

With over 1 billion people (which is 1/7, or roughly 15%, of the world’s population) living with a disability, it seems like it should be one of the top priorities when addressing minority groups whose rights need to be protected, but the UDHR only mentions disability a single time, in Article 25.

Article 25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Luckily, the UN later adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006, which specifically addresses disability rights.

Unluckily for us, the U.S. is one of few nations that has not ratified this treaty.

And, although the U.S. has created its own laws surrounding disability rights, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), some people, including writer, speaker, and disability rights activist Emily Ladau, lament that even though it’s been decades since these laws were put in place, many of their promises have yet to fully come to fruition.

So, what gives? Are disability rights human rights? And if so, how do we make them matter?

According to Ladau, many others, and the UN, the simple answer is “yes.”

Disability rights are, without a doubt, human rights. But, although many consider human rights to be something that are inherent and inalienable, making people’s rights matter socially and politically is sadly a longer story than just saying “yes.”

Altering Attitudes Toward Disability

While making political change such as recognizing the UDHR, ratifying the CRPD, and implementing the ADA is crucial because it gives people the legal protections they need, Ladau personally believes we need to start by changing people’s views of disability. We need to start with social and cultural change.

“You can’t legislate an attitude,” Ladau says. “You can pass more laws, but the law isn’t going to change how people think about it.”

Then how do we change how people think about?

Ladau thinks one of the first steps is educating others about disability. Currently, disability and disability rights are rarely talked about in the news or taught in classrooms, creating a world where people know very little about the community unless they’re part of it.

Ladau believes one reason for this is because disability makes people uncomfortable, particularly because many people have been taught disability is “wrong.” This means as a society, we need to get to a place where people realize disability is a natural part of the human condition, and that anyone, no matter who they are, can experience disability at any time. Ladau explains it is one of the only marginalized communities that truly intersects with all other identities, because it’s not something that impacts only one group of people; it could potentially impact everyone at some point in their lives.

Another reason people don’t discuss disability, according to Ladau, is because they are terrified to say the wrong thing. But sometimes that’s the only way to learn. Ladau believes we need to acknowledge we are going to make mistakes along the way, we just need to start somewhere.

And, in many ways, it’s up to the disability community to educate others about the support they need from allies. “If you want the world to be more accessible to the disability community, then the disability community has to make their ideas and experiences more accessible to the world,” says Ladau.

But, in her mind, advocacy is a two-way street, because it’s also up to allies of the community to listen, ask questions, and seek out resources to learn more.

Implementing Inclusive Education

Once a greater understanding of disability has been reached, then larger change can start to happen. And one of the first places change needs to happen is in our school systems.

Education is something we place considerable value on in the U.S., but we don’t value it the same for everybody. Because while everybody has a right to education, which is even outlined in the IDEA, many students are still being denied the opportunity to be educated in their general education classrooms with their grade-level peers.

Ladau says this stems from an overall failure as a society to understand that everyone learns differently. But learning differently doesn’t mean segregation should be the first option. Instead, it means we need to create classrooms that use the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and emphasize a strengths-based approach. Education might not look the same for everyone, but that doesn’t mean we should deny education to those who don’t perfectly align with society’s current definition of “normal.” Instead, we need to alter the system to be inclusive for all, no matter their learning style or ability.

Make Accessibility and Inclusivity a Priority

Altogether, Ladau thinks “disability rights are human rights because anything that makes the world more accessible to people with disabilities, makes the world more accessible for everyone.”

One way to understand this is with the Curb-Cut Effect: anyone can use a curb cut (such as someone in a wheelchair, a parent with a stroller, a cyclist, or simply a person walking along the street), but not everyone can step up a curb.

To truly create a world where people’s rights are being recognized to the fullest extent, we need to make accessibility and inclusivity a priority by twisting the mold to fit the people, not by twisting the people to fit the mold.


Interested in learning more about disability, disability rights, and the disability community? Pre-order Emily Ladau’s book: “Demystifying Disability.” Ladau’s book aims to take concepts around disability and break them down into bite-size pieces that are accessible to everyone, giving people a friendly primer on disability without feeling like a text book.

Also, Ladau wants to emphasize that the above thoughts and the thoughts in her book only represent her opinion, and are not the declaration of the entire disability community. As she says, “If you’ve met one person with a disability, you’ve met one person with a disability.”


Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.


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