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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality


New York, 16 to 27 June 2003

Panel discussions on priority themes

Panel III

New and Emerging Approaches to definitions of disability: conceptual frameworks, varying contexts of definition and implications for promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities


23 June 2003
3 to 6 p.m.)

Panel III had three presenters: Dr Scott Campbell (USA), Dr Catherine Barral (France) and Dr Kofi Marfo (Ghana). The panel discussion was chaired by H.E. Ambassador Luis Gallegos (Ecuador), Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. Dr Scott Campbell moderated the panel discussion.

The panel explored critical issues and concepts concerning disability, which would have impact on issues concerning the rights of persons with disabilities in national and international policy and legislative contexts. The purpose of this panel was not to derive an international definition for disability which would be employed as a mechanism for determining who is covered under a disability/human rights Convention. Rather, the purpose of examining these issues is to aid in the systematic determination of the Convention's scope; such concepts need to be studied, because the viewpoint of what disability is may determine the actual rights that are conferred.

In relation to a new convention and the need for definition of disability, the panelists were of the view that the discussion concerning contextual variables is essential and the situation of disability, should be taken into account. The panelists had a special focus on accessibility, which they deemed more important than definition of disability. Distinction was made between experiences of impairment and experiences of disability.

Dr. Scott Campbell Brown suggested elements for a human-rights-based disability taxonomy and recommend strategies for inclusion of these elements in the context of elaboration of a new convention. The presentation addressed the question of essential principles deriving from social pathology models of disability which may be considered by the Ad Hoc Committee for its future work. The need for a taxonomic approach to human rights and disability were discussed in relation to its potential use in the process of considering a convention. Potential elements to be considered in human rights/disability taxonomy were also outlined.

Dr. Catherine Barral addressed human rights issues focusing on the rights to which all people, regardless of disability status, are entitled. Analyses of how societies marginalize people with disabilities, such as the typology proposed by Jean-Francois Ravaud and Henri-Jacques Stiker for different forms of social exclusion of persons with disabilities were presented. Concepts related to citizen rights in a civil society were also discussed.

Dr. Kofi Marfo addressed the issues on framing disability in conceptions and definitions of disability. The presentation explained the transition from the old classification system (disorder-impairment-handicap) to that of more enlarged concepts, moving from biological to societal concepts, which identified the need for local concepts, concepts of personhood in varying socio-cultural contexts. It also addressed conceptions of difference at cultural (universalism and evolutionism as transport models as opposed to relativism) and psychological (moving from deficit/negative model to individual model with a view to contextual factors).

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United Nations, 2003-04
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Division for Social Policy and Development