Since the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981,  people with disability have organised  themselves into their own organisations all over  the world. Disabled People's Organisations are  those controlled by a majority of people with disability (51%) at the board and  membership levels.

The role of these organisations includes providing a voice of their own, identifying needs, expressing views on priorities, evaluating services and advocating change and public awareness.

DPOs believe that people with disability are their own best spokespersons and their role has been and is fundamental for the human rights movement of people with disability.

Indeed, up until the late 1970’s, the views of persons with disability were largely filtered through the voices of disability service providers, professionals working in the area of disability and family members, including at the international level.

At the time, the key international disability organisation, Rehabilitation International, had a policy that people with disability could attend its periodic international conference as observers, but were not permitted to speak. People with disability strongly protested against this policy at the 1980 conference of Rehabilitation International, held in Winnipeg, Canada where a decision was made to establish a new International organisation of and for people with disability. The organisation founded was Disabled Peoples International, which now has members in over 160 countries throughout the world.

There are different kinds of DPOs:

  • Diagnostic-focused (such DPOs represent a medical diagnostic group – e.g. people living with cerebral palsy).
  • Population-specific (such DPOs represent a population group – e.g. women with disability).
  • Cross-disability (such DPOs represent the interests of people with all kinds of disability).

PWDA is a national cross-disability DPO.

For more information on how we work with DPOs  around the world, click here to read about our International Development work.

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Advocacy & Human Rights

Aboriginal Disability Network NSW (ADN NSW) -

Ability Incorporated Advocacy Service (AIAS NSW) -

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Virtually every Australian with disability encounters human right violations at some point in their lives and many experience human right violations on a daily basis.

People with disability are subject to multiple and aggravated forms of human rights violation, including the neglect of their most basic survival related needs.  These human rights violations do not only occur in far off places that lack enlightened legislation and policies or the resources needed to meet basic needs.  They occur every day, in every region, of every State and Territory in Australia.

In 2011, it is possible for people with disability in Australia to die of starvation in specialist disability services, to have life-sustaining medical treatments denied or withdrawn in health services, to be raped and assaulted without any reasonable prospect of these crimes being detected, investigated or prosecuted by the legal system and to have their children removed by child protection authorities on the prejudiced assumption that disability simply equates with incompetent parenting.

In the light of the rights set out in CRPD, the following sections provide some key examples of current human rights violations experienced by people with disability. Please note that this list is not complete.

Freedom of expression and opinion and access to information

Many people with disability lack awareness and knowledge of their rights or where to go if they do recognise their rights have been denied. For people with cognitive impairments (developmental disability, acquired and organic brain impairment, psychosocial disability, dementia, neurological impairment such as Autism Spectrum Disorder) this is a particular problem.  The barriers to ‘knowledge of rights’ include:

  • poorer education opportunities and outcomes for people with disability
  • limited or no accessible information otherwise available to their non-disabled peers about rights and how to use them
  • limited or no alternative and augmentative communication systems to communicate with others
  • limited access to independent advocacy services and support
  • lack of control over their own lives and alternative choices
  • no national, comprehensive approach to seek the voices of children and young people with disability or to ensure that they are able to access information of benefit to children and young people.

Equal recognition before the law and access to justice

Australian law and subsequent institutional mechanisms for dealing with complaints do not sufficiently protect or promote the human rights of people with disability:

  • Complaint handling agencies are often inaccessible for people with disability. Barriers include structural and physical access barriers, information and complaint procedures in inaccessible formats (e.g. complaints to be provided in writing) and centralised agencies with few outreach mechanisms, therefore placing a heavy reliance on the complainant being able to come to them when they lack the means to do so.
  • The human rights of persons with disability expressed by CRPD are not comprehensively incorporated into Australian domestic law and therefore remain unattainable.

Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that people with disability living in low cost housing options such as licensed and unlicensed boarding houses are not afforded appropriate protections from abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse  

Substantial national (and international) research provides evidence that people with disability are over-represented as victims of all forms of abuse and neglect. Abuse relates to physical, sexual, psychological, financial, legal/civil and systemic abuse as well as constraints and restrictive practices. As for neglect, it can be physical, emotional, passive or wilful.

Due to increased vulnerability, people with cognitive impairment are even more exposed to abuse and neglect than other groups of people with disability. The over-representation of people with disability as victims of abuse and neglect has been particularly reported in relation to those living in supported accommodation where the perpetrators commonly are service providers, other service users or visitors.

Abuse and neglect against people with disability and particularly against people with cognitive impairments, often goes undetected, unreported, non-investigated, non-prosecuted and unpunished. The successful detection, investigation and prosecution of abuse and neglect of people with cognitive impairment requires, in many instances, a particular value-base, expertise and practice that is simply not present or capable of being generated, in mainstream law enforcement agencies.

Children with disability and respect for home and family

Australian social policy, legal and political systems fail to view children and young people with disability as children and young people first.  The focus is on disability-related needs and specialist disability related interventions to the exclusion of child related needs such as emotional and developmental well-being. Thus, children and young people with disability are not generally or as a matter of course, included when developing or examining policies and programs on issues or concerns relating to children and young people.

The disability service system has generally failed to develop appropriate service models and practice frameworks that meet the needs of children.  Unlike the child protection system, practices such as planning to restore the child to their family, planning for permanent alternative placement and recognising the developmental needs and interests of the child are not universally applied in the disability service system. A major factor in this is that disability service legislation and service standards are adult focused and do not contain specific provisions for children. This reinforces the focus of services on the disability of the child with an emphasis on treatments, medication and behaviour management, rather than on their developmental needs and interests.

Non-therapeutic sterilisation of people with disability is a particularly egregious form of human rights abuse and one that impacts particularly on girls and women with disability. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that unlawful sterilisation of children and young people with disability, mostly girls continues to occur in the absence of medical needs such as diseases of the reproductive tract. Sterilisation is an irreversible medical procedure with lifelong physical, psychological and social consequences.

Parents with disability, particularly women and particularly those with intellectual disability and psychosocial disability are significantly over represented in the child protection system. The prejudicial assumptions about the parenting capacity of people with disability means that disability is constructed as a risk factor for abuse and neglect rather than as an indicator of possible support needs.

However, evidence provided at the NSW Legislative Council Inquiry into Disability Services and the Inquiry into Child Protection Services demonstrate that when family support programs and sufficient community-based mental health services are provided to parents with disability, the outcomes for their children are not significantly different from other children.

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Women with disability

The over-representation of women with disability in part-time, casual and lower paying jobs or their sole reliance on government payments means that women with disability are one of the poorest groups in Australia.  There is a connection between poverty and health, well-being and the exacerbation of impairments and conditions.  Financial hardship impacts on obtaining quality housing, skills development and meeting the additional costs associated with disability, such as accessible transport, personal care needs, specialist aids and equipment and medical care.

Women with disability report difficulty accessing mainstream health services such as preventative breast and cervical screening, due to inadequate policy frameworks which do not include women with disability as target groups, lack of data on women with disability and the prevalence of cancers, the physical inappropriateness of the medical equipment used, costs (even if a doctor bulk bills there costs associated with accessible transport and carer costs can be prohibitive) and the manner in which these procedures are performed.

Women with disability experience restrictions in realising their rights to full reproductive freedom (the right to sex education, to informed consent regarding birth control, to terminate a pregnancy, to choose to be a parent and to access reproductive information, resources, medical care, services and support).

Women with disability are at greater risk of physical, sexual, and emotional or psychological abuse as well as to other forms of violence, such as institutional violence, chemical restraint, drug use, control of reproduction, medical exploitation, isolation, humiliation and harassment. Abuse and violence can be perpetrated by intimate partner as well as relatives, caregivers, co-patients, residential and institutional staff, service providers, strangers, institutions and social structures.

Click here to learn more about  PWDA’s position on the sterilisation of women and girls with disability (Word 63kb)

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability experience the denial of the most fundamental of human rights, such as access to adequate shelter, education, employment, health. They are significantly under-represented on a population basis in beneficial social programs due to a number of policy and structural failures. These include services that are poorly targeted and located, as well as culturally insensitive or inappropriate services.

Aboriginal people with disability are more likely to go to jail for a minor crime than others and they are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system because of the negative attitudes of the police. In goal, they generally experience abuse and neglect, including the lack of appropriate care for those with psychosocial disability.

Also see Aboriginal Disability Justice Campaign for more information.

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Liberty of movement and nationality

Australia’s migration laws continue to violate the human rights of people with disability. The Migration Act 1958 is exempt from the discrimination provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.  Potential migrants and refugees to Australia are subject to a health assessment in order to determine their eligibility. The assumed future costs associated with health condition or disability is taken into account as part of the assessment procedure. There is no assessment of the positive contributions people with disability can and do make to our communities.

The health test means that migrants and refugees with disability are routinely refused entry to Australia as a result of an assessment of the potential health costs associated with their illness or disability. It also means that many families supporting people with disability make a difficult decision to leave behind a family member in order to build a life in Australia. In cases involving humanitarian entrants, these family members with disability will remain in extremely vulnerable situations.

Some refugees and migrants are granted exemptions under the current arrangements. However, waivers are determined through a decision making process which is inconsistent, can be arbitrary in nature and therefore potentially unfair.

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Housing and support

Access to housing is a fundamental human need and a core element of the human right to an adequate standard of living.  In order to effectively exercise their housing rights, many persons with disability require social support services to provide personal care, domestic services and living skill support.  Access to social services is also a core element of the human right to an adequate standard of living.

However, people with disability have been largely invisible in efforts to implement and monitor these rights at both the national and international levels.  Human right perspectives have had very little, if any, impact on housing and housing and support systems upon which people with disability depend and indeed, in some cases these systems actually violate human rights.

For example, building regulation has failed to ensure that domestic housing is designed and built in ways that accommodate the accessibility requirements of people with physical impairments, while specialist housing and support is often provided in ways that deprive people with disability of the right to live independently and be included in the general community.

One of the most pervasive human rights abuses experienced by people with disability is their segregation and isolation from the community in congregate care facilities.

Sometimes it is argued that people with disability ‘choose’ to live in segregated accommodation and that Governments must allow for this ‘choice’ on the basis of the need to respect personal autonomy. The real facts rarely reflect such claims. People with disability have long been obliged to live in segregated environments because it is the only way they can receive essential support services. Tragically, in many situations the individuals concerned become institutionalised by years of segregated living.

It is sometimes argued that housing options that congregate people with disability in significant numbers are justifiable because other people in the community choose to live this way, such as elderly people.  This claim is unfounded. Unlike people without disability, people with disability are not given the option of living with their non-disabled peers in accommodation of their choice. For many people with disability, their only option is a segregated simulation of the accommodation choices available to people without disability, which violates normal living patterns (such as young people with disability sharing residential aged care facilities and retirement villages).

The involuntariness of such detention includes the inability of the person to choose an alternative place, the inability to choose with whom they will live and the inevitable suppression of personal autonomy to externally imposed rules. Typically, such facilities also restrict, or entirely prevent, the person from leaving the facility. Although, no law compels people with disability to live in such environments, they have no alternative but to do so if they are to have access to essential support services.

Segregation ultimately has its roots in harmful social beliefs about the inferiority of persons and their ‘otherness’, and this is offensive to human dignity and rights.  This is true irrespective of the ‘quality’ of any facilities or services that may be provided in the segregated setting.

People with disability also experience human rights violations in many other key aspects of their life such as:

  • Education and Training
  • Employment
  • Access to services
  • Health access
  • Access to premises
  • Voting access
  • Public transport access
  • Access to recreational and social activities
  • Expression of sexuality
  • Finances

Please click here to learn more about Shut In, the national campaign to close institutions.

Throughout history, people with disability have been ignored, hidden and cursed. When made visible, they have been subjects of exhibitions and objects of ridicule. Society has been ‘dealing’ with the ‘problem of people with disability by placing them in institutions or prisons and by sterilising women and girls as an acceptable treatment.

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  1. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  2. Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA)

  3. National Standards for Disability Services

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

The principal role of the CRPD is to demonstrate how traditional rights are to be applied in respect of people with disability.

On 13 December 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its Optional Protocol was adopted and opened for signature on 30 March 2007. There were 82 signatories to the convention on that day, including Australia.

Click here to learn  more about PWDA’s role in the development of CRPD.

Australia ratified the convention and its Optional Protocol on 17 July 2008 and joined other countries around the world in a global effort to promote the equal and active participation of all people with disability in society and community life.

This is a fundamental achievement given the history of the rights of people with disability.

The CRPD incorporates both ‘civil and political rights’ and ‘economic, social and cultural rights’. Civil and political rights are sometimes called ‘negative rights’ because they operate mainly to constrain or control interference with the liberty of the individual. On the other hand, economic, social and cultural rights are sometimes called ‘positive obligations’ because they ask for State Parties to take active steps to avoid the violation of a human right.

Civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are, traditionally, subject to different standards of compliance. Civil and political rights are ‘immediately realisable’, which means that State Parties have an immediate obligation to promote, protect and fulfil these rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are subject to the standard of ‘progressive realisation’. States Parties are not required to immediately fully comply with the requirements of the right, provide they are working towards the realisation of the right as quickly and effectively as possible, using the maximum resources at their disposal. State Parties do, however, have an obligation to satisfy ‘minimum essential levels’ of the right, and to avoid deliberately regressive measures.

The CRPD is made up of a Preamble and 50 Articles. At least 30 of the Articles which have substantive human rights content and cover the following areas:

  • Equality and non-discrimination
  • Women with disabilities
  • Children with disabilities
  • Awareness raising
  • Accessibility
  • Right to life
  • Situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies
  • Equal recognition before the law
  • Access to justice
  • Liberty and security of the person
  • Freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse
  • Protecting the integrity of the person
  • Liberty of movement and nationality
  • Living independently and being included in the community
  • Personal mobility
  • Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information
  • Respect for privacy
  • Respect for home and the family
  • Education
  • Health
  • Habilitation and rehabilitation
  • Work and employment
  • Adequate standard of living and social protection
  • Participation in political and public life
  • Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport

The Optional Protocol

This is a separate document to the CRPD that incorporates an individual complaint procedure, which allows individuals and groups of individuals to raise complaints with the treaty body when they have exhausted domestic remedies. It also establishes an inquiry procedure in relation to gross or systemic violations of CRPD rights.

Article 4 of the CRPD requires parties to adopt all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognised in the Convention. However, in spite of its obligation to do so, Australia has not comprehensively enacted into domestic ‘hard law’ previous international human rights treaties it has ratified. Australia does not have a national bill of rights. There can therefore be no real expectation that the act of ratification of the CRPD, of itself, will stimulate the Australian Government to enact further domestic measures for the promotion and protection of the human rights or people with disability.

The Australian Government has approached the question of ratification from the point of view that Australian laws and institutional arrangements already comply with the terms of CRPD. This does not necessarily mean that the Australia Government believes that Australians with disability enjoy to the maximum possible extent all of the human rights set down by the CRPD, particularly with respect to economic, social and cultural rights. However, it does take the view that Australia already demonstrates the required minimum level of compliance with CRPD obligations.

In this respect, particular reliance has been places on measures such as the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and the Disability Services Act. The implementation of the CRPD in Australia is therefore likely to require concerted ongoing efforts by disability activists and policy makers.

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Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA)

The Federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) provides protection for everyone in Australia against discrimination based on disability. It also aims  to promote equal opportunity and access for people with disability.

Disability discrimination happens when people with a disability are treated less fairly than people without disability. Disability discrimination also occurs when people are treated less fairly because they are relatives, friends, carers, co-workers or associates of a person with disability.

The DDA makes it against the law to discriminate against someone if they have a disability in the following areas of life:

  • Employment. For example, when someone is trying to get a job, equal pay or promotion.
  • Education. For example, when enrolling in a school, TAFE, university or other colleges.
  • Access to premises used by the public. For example, using libraries, places of worship, government offices, hospitals, restaurants, shops, or other premises used by the public.
  • Provision of goods, services and facilities. For example, when a person wants goods or services from shops, pubs and places of entertainment, cafes, video shops, banks, lawyers, government departments, doctors, hospitals and so on.
  • Accommodation. For example, when renting or trying to rent a room in a boarding house, a flat, unit or house.
  • Buying land. For example, buying a house, a place for a group of people, or drop-in centre.
  • Activities of clubs and associations. For example, wanting to enter or join a registered club, (such as a sports club, RSL or fitness centre), or when a person is already a member.
  • Sport. For example, when wanting to play, or playing a sport.
  • Administration of Commonwealth Government laws and programs. For example, when seeking information on government entitlements, trying to access government programs, wanting to use voting facilities.

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National Standards for Disability Services

There are six National Standards that apply to disability service providers.

  • Rights: The service promotes individual rights to freedom of expression, self-determination and decision-making and actively prevents abuse, harm, neglect and violence.
  • Participation and Inclusion: The service works with individuals and families, friends and carers to promote opportunities for meaningful participation and active inclusion in society.
  • Individual Outcomes: Services and supports are assessed, planned, delivered and reviewed to build on individual strengths and enable individuals to reach their goals.
  • Feedback and Complaints: Regular feedback is sought and used to inform individual and organisation-wide service reviews and improvement.
  • Service Access: The service manages access, commencement and leaving a service in a transparent, fair, equal and responsive way.
  • Service Management: The service has effective and accountable service management and leadership to maximise outcomes for individuals.

Click this link to access more information on the National Standards, including Easy English Guides and versions of the Standards in languages other than English.

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Human rights are fundamental rights and freedoms that are intrinsic to every person by virtue of their status as a human being.

In this sense, human rights are said to be ‘inalienable’ because they can neither be given to a person, nor can they be taken away from them.

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Disability Human Rights covers four main areas

1. Human Rights - as fundamental intrinsic rights of every human being.

2. History of Disability Rights Movement in Australia - setting the big picture of this movement in Australia.

3. Main Human Rights Violations - unfortunately human rights violations experienced by people with disability in Australia are still happening today.

4. Key Pieces of Legislation - three key pieces of legislation are used in Australia to cover the human rights of people with disability.

Language shapes the way we view the world. The words we use influences community attitudes - both positively and negatively - and impacts on the lives of others.

How we write and speak about people with disability can have a profound effect on the way they are viewed by the community and themselves. Some words, by their very nature, degrade and diminish people with disability. Other words perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes.

PWDA ensures that a social model of disability is presented in all written work and all verbal communication.

This includes referring to ‘people with disability’ rather than ‘people with disabilities’ as well as ‘women with disability’, ‘children with disability’, etc.

We recommend referring to ‘people with intellectual disability’ rather that ‘intellectually challenged’ or ‘mentally retarded’.

We recommend using ‘people with psychosocial disability’ to refer someone living with a mental illness. We avoid pejorative terms like ‘crazy’, ‘mad’ or ‘insane’.

Generally, we also urge to refer to ‘people with Down syndrome’ instead of ‘Mongol”, to ‘people with cerebral palsy’ instead of ‘spastic’, to ‘people with autism’ instead of ‘autistic people ’, to ‘people with ADHD’ instead of ‘hyperactive’, to ‘people with brain injury’ instead of ‘brain damaged people ’, to ‘people with learning disability’ instead of ‘slows’, to ‘people with paraplegia’ instead of ‘paraplegic people ’, etc.

We only use the word ‘blind’ when the person is fully blind. Otherwise, ‘person with a visual impairment’ or ‘person with vision impairment’ is preferred.

People are not victims either. We do not use expressions like ‘suffers from depression’, but to refer instead to a ‘person living with depression’.

Equally, we recommend not using the expression ‘confined to a wheelchair’. A wheelchair is not confining, it provides great mobility to people who can’t walk. A person ‘uses a wheelchair’ or is a ‘wheelchair user’.

We avoid phrases like ‘disabled toilet’ or ‘disabled parking space’. The toilet or parking space is not disabled (ie broken)! Use ‘accessible toilet’ or ‘accessible parking space’.

We recommend using ‘person without disability’ rather than ‘sighted’, ‘hearing’, ‘able-bodied’, ‘normal’, ‘healthy’, etc.

We advocate against the use patronising of language, describing people as ‘brave’ or ‘special’ just because they live with disability.

The word ‘carer’ should be reserved for the ‘family’ of a person with disability who provide unpaid support. Workers who provide care and get paid for it, should be referred to as care workers, disability workers, disability staff, assistants or attendants.

We use a  ‘person first language’ in all written and verbal communication which means we acknowledge the person before their disability. A person’s disability should not be unnecessarily focussed on.

Click here for PWDA’s Media Guidelines for Reporting Disability

According to the social model of disability, 'disability' is socially constructed.

The social model of disability contrasts with what is called the medical model of disability.

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what-we-doThis part of our website is designed for anyone seeking information about disability, about PWDA, the disability rights movement and Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs).