A Fair Go for All Australians: The role of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in promoting socially just outcomes for Australians with disability

Written by: Jillian Ash 


Jillian Ash at UNESCAP

Jillian Ash at UNESCAP

Australia is considered a wealthy country that performs very strongly in many measures of well-being relative to most other countries. Despite this, Australians with a disability experience significantly worse socio-economic outcomes and poverty than Australians without a disability. In short, Australians with disability are less likely to be employed, less likely to participate in post-secondary education and training, and more likely to experience social exclusion and ongoing discrimination.

Just fewer than one in five Australians (4.2 million or 18.5% of Australians) reported having a disability in 2012, of which 88% (or 3.7 million) had a limitation or restriction that meant they were limited in their core activities of self-care, mobility or communication. One of the most compelling statistics is that approximately 45% of Australians with disability live near or below the poverty line. This is further reinforced by data published by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2009, which demonstrated Australia as having had a relative poverty risk of 2.7 (for people with disability compared to people without disability) against the average of 27 OECD[1] countries with 1.6. This suggests that while people with disability make up Australia’s largest minority group, they are not afforded the basic rights others take for granted and they continue to face institutional barriers to equality and justice. 

However, the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) by the United Nations General Assembly in 2006 has instigated a global paradigm shift in how we view persons with disability[2], by advocating a socially just model that views persons with disability as full and equal members of society with human rights. As such, the CRPD plays an influential role in promoting equality and inclusion, and alleviating poverty, for Australians with a disability. 


1.1.         Australians with disability: the context

According to recent research conducted in Australia, the social and economic contribution people with disability are capable of making is massively undervalued and forgotten altogether. Perceptions of and attitudes towards people with disability greatly affect their inclusion in their communities and their capacity to achieve basic goals, such as employment and education. Examples of negative attitudes towards people with disability include derogatory stereotypes and beliefs that people with disability have a lesser position in society, that they are in need of ‘fixing’ or that they have a diminished capacity to contribute due to their impairment.

Access to education and employment is vital for Australians with disability. Education and employment can contribute to a sense of identity and self-worth, greater economic independence, inclusion in the wider community and have positive health impacts for some people with disability. Alarmingly, over the last few years, the rate of unemployment for those with a disability had increased (9.4% in 2012 compared to 7.8% in 2009), while remaining steady for those without disability (4.9% in 2012 and 5.1% in 2009). In comparison with other OECD countries, Australia ranks 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment participation rates for people with disability. Negative attitudes and misconceptions about disability reportedly contribute to the reluctance of employers employing a person with disability. 

In addition, Australians with disability are less likely to participate in post-secondary education. About 15% of people with disability had obtained a bachelor degree or higher in 2012, compared with 26% of people without disability. Data published by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education suggests that within the post-secondary education sector, students with disability continue to be identified as a disadvantaged equity group due to the under representation in accessing, participation and succeeding within higher education in Australia. In 2012, students with a disability represented 5.2% of all domestic undergraduates in Australia, below the national reference target of their population share of 8%. Astonishingly, the University of Queensland (UQ) had the lowest representation rate of students with disability across all 41 Australian Universities, with approximately 2.7% of the student body self-identifying as having a disability. This suggests UQ currently possess barriers which prevent people with a disability from attending the university. This could largely be attributable to the absence of financial support (specifically equity and access scholarships and/or bursaries), as well as Disability Services being significantly under-resourced.


1.2.         The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The CRPD offers the most comprehensive and authoritative set of standards on the rights of people with disabilities. The fundamental purpose of the 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” (Article 1).

Although the CRPD is not legally enforceable in an international court, it constitutes a powerful means of holding governments accountable to the international community and providing a springboard for national advocacy[3]. The Convention consists of 50 Articles, which are summarised as follows:

Articles 1 to 7: sets outs the general principles that establish people with disabilities are the subject of rights.

Articles 8 and 9: seeks to raise awareness, foster respect, combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices, including the exclusion of people with disabilities from physical environments and essential services.

Articles 11 to 17: reflects the priority given to physical and mental safety and well-being, as a precondition for social inclusion.

Articles 18 to 30: recognises the barriers to effective social participation as the interplay between the embodied experience of disability and the disabling effects of active and passive discrimination.

Articles 31 to 50: relates to governance, reporting and monitoring of the Convention. 

As of August 2015, 157 governments have ratified the CRPD, with Australia ratifying the CRPD in 2008. The committed governments are obliged to submit regular reports to the CRPD Committee[4] on how the rights are being implemented. In tandem, the Australian Government developed the National Disability Strategy to align with the CRPD, which sets out a ten year national plan (2010 to 2020) for improving life for Australians with a disability, their families and carers.

The CRPD rejects the traditional medical model of disability, which suggests people with disability are ‘broken’ and thus in need of fixing or charity. Instead, the CRPD promotes the social justice model. UQ’s own Dr Paul Harpur articulated the social justice model assumes:

“that society creates barriers which prevent people with disabilities from functioning in society, and, therefore, society itself must change and adapt to enable people with disability to enjoy their human rights” (p. 165).

As such, the CRPD seeks to break down barriers that perpetuate social exclusion and marginalisation of people with disabilities. To achieve this, it sets out the foundational human rights of non-discrimination, equality and social participation as entitlements that must be constructed in the social fabric[5].

1.3.         The role of CRPD in promoting socially just outcomes for Australians with disability

In essence, the CRPD serves as a major catalyst in driving a paradigm shift in attitudes towards people with disability. More specifically, it has the potential to facilitate a radical review of policy and practice across the Australian government and organisations of persons with disability to enable the social participation of Australians with a disability in everyday interactions in society. Reflecting this new approach to disability, the Australian Public Service (APS) launched its Disability Employment Strategy, ‘As One’, in 2011. A major initiative of the strategy is the RecruitAbility scheme, which supports people with disability applying for jobs in the APS. Job applicants with a disability who opt into the scheme are advanced to a further stage in the application process and are provided with support once they are in jobs. This process aims to eliminate bias and negative assumptions towards applicants with a disability early on in the recruitment process, and thereby enhancing the chances of these applicants being successful in obtaining roles within the APS.

Opening up opportunities for Australians with a disability, particularly in employment and education, is considered one of the most effective ways to promote equality and alleviate poverty. Once Australians with a disability are more visible in the community, it will become easier to achieve equality and socially just outcomes, as the invisibility of people with disability in the community hinders the fight against exclusion and discrimination.

[1] The mission of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. Average of 27 OECD countries: United States; Australia; Ireland; Korea; Canada; Mexico; Portugal; Denmark; Spain; United Kingdom; Finland; Italy; Germany; Greece; Belgium; Poland; Austria; Switzerland; Hungary; France; Iceland; Luxembourg; Czech Republic; Netherlands; Slovak Republic; Norway; and Sweden.

[2] The Convention defines disability 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.

[3] Mittler, P. (2015) The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Implementing a Paradigm Shift, Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 12 (2), pp. 79-89.

[4] The Committee on the CRPD is the body of independent experts which monitor implementation of the Convention by the State Parties. All States parties are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights are being implemented.

[5] Weller, P. (2009) Human Rights and Social Justice: The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Quiet Revolution in International Law, Public Space: The Journal of Law and Social Justice, 4, pp. 74-91.