In scope, intention and detail, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities promises to foster the dignity and participation of people with disabilities worldwide, including those with mental disabilities, psychologists and other disability-rights advocates say.

"The convention is a landmark event in so many ways," says University of Arkansas at Little Rock psychology professor Dan Holland, PhD, who has studied disability-reform efforts in Eastern Europe. "It explicitly brings disability into the realm of human rights advocacy"--a major advance when it comes at the level of the United Nations, he says.

In U.N. parlance, a "convention" is a treaty or instrument of international law whereby member states agree in theory to create legal rights and duties in their countries. APA is an accredited nongovernmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations. While NGOs don't have a lot of power to directly influence the convention's language, they team up with other NGOs to try to influence sympathetic governments with their ideas, says Corann Okorodudu, EdD, one of APA's U.N. representatives. Okorodudu attended a number of sessions leading up to the convention, including those on the rights of children, women and minorities with disabilities.

"While many of the specific provisions advanced by our caucus were not adopted in the convention, we were generally pleased with the inclusion of specific sections on children and women," Okorodudu says.

The treaty, adopted last December, encompasses 50 "articles," or points, that urge states to create conditions that help people with disabilities overcome obstacles to participating in society. These include obstacles related to accessibility, personal mobility, health, education, employment, habilitation and rehabilitation, participation in political life and equality and nondiscrimination.

While the convention lacks the ability to enforce the way countries implement it, it differs from other such documents in its specificity and detail, says Div. 33 (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) President Steven F. Warren, PhD, who directs the Kansas Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Center at the University of Kansas.

"Unlike the more general statements usually made by bodies like the United Nations, this treaty is more of a practical tool," Warren says. "For any given issue, you could refer to this document and get a much better idea about what an appropriate standard would be for that area, in any place in the world."

The U.N. convention brings mental health disabilities into the realm of human rights advocacy.

The United States sits out

As of August, 102 of the United Nations' 192 member countries had signed the treaty, five countries had ratified it, and 59 had signed an "optional protocol" that allows citizens to launch complaints if they feel their country is not living up to treaty standards.

Signing such a treaty means a country supports its general objective and purpose; ratifying it means the country accepts the treaty's tenets as law. Croatia, Cuba, Hungary, Jamaica and Panama have all ratified it, and all those but Jamaica have also ratified the optional protocol.

Absent so far from any of these lists is the United States because, say U.S. State Department officials, the treaty would add nothing to the strength of U.S. law on disability, namely the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Not all Americans agree with that assessment, though. Eric Rosenthal, founder and executive director of the advocacy organization Mental Disability Rights International, says the treaty is, in some respects, broader than the ADA, and not signing it sends a signal that the United States believes it is above international law.

"The United States has pioneered a lot of these basic principles and for the last 20 or 30 years countries have been emulating us," Rosenthal says. "Our leadership in the field is going to be absolutely lost if we fail to join the international community in taking a stand on this issue."

Psychologists tune in

The treaty spells out the rights of people with physical disabilities, at least in the public arena, Rosenthal says. But it takes an even bolder step in the way it addresses the rights of people with mental disabilities, in essence giving them the legal right to choose their treatment and to receive the support they need to participate fully in society, says Rosenthal.

"This is probably where the convention is most cutting-edge," he says.

The treaty may have the biggest effect on developing countries that have retained a 1950sstyle of institutionalized care, Rosenthal adds. His organization and others have documented how people with mental disabilities are segregated from society, subjected to subhuman conditions and have no say in their own fate. The treaty not only bans many abusive practices, but asks states to create a wide range of legal, community and treatment supports to help people with mental disabilities function fully in all areas of society, he says.

For psychologists, the biggest effect will likely be on those who work in advocacy, public policy and community psychology, says Holland.

"Psychologists are often the most knowledgeable health professionals when it comes to understanding how individuals and families are influenced by social conditions or political contexts," he says. "But psychology as a discipline and profession needs to become aware of what it has to offer, and begin to prepare students for these roles."

The convention is just the first step in getting countries to change, albeit an important one, adds rehabilitation counselor Erin Martz, PhD. "Awareness is the first step, but action must follow," she says.

But if one of the ratifiers, Hungary--which has had a particularly grim history with regard to disability issues--is any indication, proper implementation isn't just a pipe dream, Holland says.

"By ratifying this convention, Hungary is committing itself to a massive change in the way it perceives and treats its citizens with disabilities," he says. "For Hungary to step up and ratify this convention is reason for tremendous celebration."

Further Reading

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

For more information on the U.N. convention, visit www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/rights/convtexte.htm.