Disability rights: A global grass-roots movement

By Thomas M. Cook


This month marks the anniversary of an important milestone in a global movement to improve the lives of millions of people, a movement with roots in small towns in Iowa and many other places.

July 26 was the 21st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA, which protects the civil rights of 55 million Americans with disabilities, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was one of the four legislators who sponsored this landmark human rights legislation in the 101st Congress. The ADA story began in the 1960s and ’70s, when people with disabilities and their parents, relatives and friends began establishing local groups to challenge societal barriers that excluded and segregated people with disabilities from full participation in their communities. It began with the establishment of the independent living movement, which challenged the notion that people with disabilities needed to be institutionalized.

Over the past 21 years, the movement has continued to grow and is now utilizing innovative methods to advance the effort.

Last month, the World Health Organization and the World Bank jointly published the first World Report on Disability. It describes more than 1 billion people worldwide living with a disability. Children with disabilities have higher mortality rates and are less likely to attend and complete school. Disabled women are more likely to be victims of discrimination and sexual violence. And people with disabilities have a 50 percent greater risk of incurring “catastrophic health costs” that push them into poverty. Nearly 80 percent of people with disabilities live in low-income countries.

In 2008, the United Nations Assembly passed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or CRPD, the first legally binding international treaty to protect the human rights of people with disabilities in the countries that ratify it. To date, the treaty has been signed by 149 countries and ratified by legislative bodies in 102 of them — but, unfortunately, not yet in the United States.

While U.N. delegates and other global advocates work diligently to promote the CRPD, librarians at the U.S. International Council on Disabilities and at the University of Iowa have been collaborating with hundreds of organizations to develop the Global Disability Rights Library, or GDRL — a collection of more than 500,000 digital resources representing the world’s collective knowledge on how to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities in widely diverse locations, cultures and circumstances.

The GDRL will soon be available online to the 20 percent of the world’s population with access to the World Wide Web ( More important, a unique technology developed at the UI also will make the GDRL available to the

80 percent of the world’s population (5.4 billion people) with no connection to the Internet. These individuals are primarily located in developing countries where the exclusion of people with disabilities is both more frequent and more profound.

Since 2001, the WiderNet Project at the UI has been loading computer disk drives with millions of educational resources and delivering them to hundreds of schools, clinics and universities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The WiderNet Project’s experience and technology will be used to deliver the GDRL to locations anywhere in the world, including locations without electricity since the GDRL is easily solar-powered.

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, an initial distribution of GDRLs to 60 organizations will occur over the next year.

The movement to promote the rights of people with “different” abilities has grown into national legislation in this country and, more recently, helped to promote an international treaty. Supported by the creativity of a new generation of tech-smart Iowans and others, this movement promises to help improve the quality of life of people everywhere.

Thomas M. Cook is professor of public health, physical therapy and rehabilitation science at the University of Iowa. Comments: 

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