History of United Nations and Persons with Disabilities – United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons: 1983 – 1992

The proclamation in December 1982 of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992) prompted an increase of activity designed to improve the situation and status of persons with disabilities. Emphasis was placed on raising new financial resources, improving education and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, and increasing their participation in the life of their communities and country.

The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities had included persons with disabilities in international human rights discourse since its establishment. In 1984, it appointed Leandro Despouy of Argentina as Special Rapporteur to study the connection between human rights violations, violations of fundamental human freedoms and disability. He was to report biannually to the Sub-Commission on the particular human rights situation of persons with disabilities. His final report, in which he recommended the establishment of an international ombudsman, was submitted in 1991.

The General Assembly endorsed a continued focus on the objectives of the World Programme of Action with regard to equalization of opportunities for persons with disabilities. The Trust Fund for the International Year of Disabled Persons was to be used to support innovative projects in new and emerging areas regarding persons with disabilities. With $1.1 million dispersed for 51 projects throughout the world between 1980 and 1985, there was much increased visibility and support for promotional activities, organizations concerned with disability, data collection, research and training.

At this juncture, the United Nations also took itself to task, with the General Assembly noting that persons with disabilities would enjoy the same rights to employment as all other qualified citizens and that the United Nations itself would declare employment opportunities open to all persons, regardless of sex, religion, ethnic origin or disability.

In August 1987, a mid-decade review of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons was conducted at a global meeting of experts in Stockholm, Sweden. The meeting recommended the importance of recognizing the rights of persons with disabilities after the Decade. Since the pace of progress during the first five years had not been as fast as initially expected, the experts agreed that the disability issues should be further addressed within a wider interdisciplinary context, namely, a comprehensive well-coordinated information and evaluation campaign; establishment of a data base on disability; and creation of technical cooperation programmes.

Publication in 1989 of the Tallinn Guidelines for Action on Human Resources Development in the Field of Disability encouraged recognition of persons with disabilities as agents of their own destiny rather than as dependent objects of Governments. With independence and full integration as goals, the Guidelines encouraged educating persons with disabilities within the regular school system, in particular, and promoting the teaching of skills that would allow persons with disabilities to be economically productive. The Guidelines suggested that training of persons with disabilities should include independent socialization and self-help skills to prepare them for independent living. International development agencies and intergovernmental and regional organizations were encouraged to work together in training persons with disabilities for optimum human resource development.

On 17 December 1991, the General Assembly adopted the Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the Improvement of Mental Health Care. The twenty-five principles define fundamental freedoms and basic rights. They deal with, inter alia, the right to life in the community, the determination of mental illness, provisions for admission to treatment facilities, and the conditions of mental health facilities. They served as a guide to Governments, specialized agencies and regional and international organizations, helping them facilitate investigation into problems affecting the application of fundamental freedoms and basic human rights for persons with mental illness.

On 16 December 1992, the General Assembly appealed to Governments to observe 3 December of each year as International Day of Disabled Persons. The Assembly further summarized the goals of the United Nations regarding disability and asked the Secretary-General to move from consciousness-raising to action, placing the Organization in a catalytic leadership role, which would place disability issues on the agendas of future world conferences.

In the same year, the Economic and Social Council endorsed the proclamation of 1993-2002 as Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, a decision taken by the Economic and Social Commission of Asia and the Pacific, in order effectively to implement the World Programme of Action in the Asian and Pacific region.