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U.N. Panel Crafts Rights Paper for World's Disabled
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U.N. Panel Crafts Rights Paper for World's Disabled

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U.N. Panel Crafts Rights Paper for World's Disabled

U.N. Panel Crafts Rights Paper for World's Disabled
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United Nations negotiators finalize a convention to give human-rights protections to an estimated 650 million disabled people around the world. The treaty, several years in the making, will be taken up by the General Assembly in January.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The United Nations long has championed the human rights of people who face discrimination - women, minorities, children. Well now, as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, the U.N. has finalized a treaty to protect people with disabilities.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

The United Nations says people with disabilities make up the world's largest minority group. There are 650 million of them, about 10 percent of the world's population. Ambassador Don McKay of New Zealand led the negotiations. He announced the agreement at the U.N. in New York.

Mr. DON McKAY (New Zealand Ambassador to the United Nations): We just completed the first comprehensive human rights convention of the 21st century.

SHAPIRO: McKay says disabled people often have few opportunities, are excluded from work or simply locked away. In the developing world, 90 percent of disabled children don't even go to school.

Mr. McKAY: This in fact is a highly marginalized group within society. If you look across the world as a whole, particularly at countries in the developing world, but not only at countries in the developing world, people with disabilities are at a huge disadvantage.

SHAPIRO: The United States has its own law that bans discrimination, the Americans with Disabilities Act. So when the U.N. talks started five years ago, the U.S. announced it would not ratify the treaty. That angered some countries and disability groups, in large part because the American law helped inspire the U.N. convention.

That anger was tempered as the U.S. delegation gave important technical advice. Steven Hill is an attorney with the U.S. State Department. He led the team of American negotiators. Hill says the U.S. delegation helped shape the final language in some very American ways.

Mr. STEVEN HILL (U.S. State Department): Our participation really did help focus on the really important concept of living independently in the community, the importance of family life for persons with disabilities, the right to found a family and to marry. We were able to focus on issues related to health, access to the justice system.

SHAPIRO: In the U.S. and around the world, it's been disabled people themselves who have most pushed for laws. Hill says that happened too at the United Nations.

Mr. HILL: One of the most remarkable parts of this process from the diplomatic perspective is the role of civil society groups. More than in any U.N. negotiation in history, civil society groups played an immense role in all aspects of negotiation.

SHAPIRO: Members of over 800 groups representing every kind of disability took part in the negotiations. Eric Rosenthal was one of them. He's the founder of Mental Disability Rights International. Recently his group exposed abuses with electroshock therapy in Turkey. Rosenthal says the treaty will make it easier for disability activists to demand change.

Mr. ERIC ROSENTHAL (Mental Disability Rights International): It starts out mostly as a political process, shaming governments into action, inspiring them into action, and a lot depends on what non-governmental organizations do to hold their governments accountable.

SHAPIRO: The U.N. General Assembly is expected to approve the treaty by the end of the year, then countries will be asked to sign on.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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