The Many Laws of Accessibility, Part 1: Conventions & Treaties

Say the word “legislation” and my eyes immediately start to glaze over. When laws, preambles, and articles are mentioned, my mind starts to panic. How can I remember this stuff? What does it mean to me, anyway? In 2 posts, I’m going to try to cover some of the important laws that were created for people with disabilities, and a few conventions and treaties that set the groundwork for those laws.

B&W; Woman holds up a huge piece of paper entitled The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt, committee chair of the Commission on Human Rights, reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo from the UN Audiovisual Library.

UN Declaration (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

After the tragedies and loss of WWII, people wanted to do better for all humans across the globe. One instance of standing up for human rights was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, France on December 10, 1948. The writing of this declaration was tasked in 1946 to the Commission on Human Rights, led by committee chair Eleanor Roosevelt.

This declaration set the foundation of all other human rights laws. It is the most translated document in the world with over 500 translations. Currently, 192 member states of the United Nations (UN) have agreed to abide by the Declaration, and have found ways to incorporate it into their own law.

In 30 articles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares the fundamental rights of humanity are:

  • life,
  • liberty,
  • equality,
  • spiritual & political freedoms, and
  • social, cultural, economic rights.

Summary of Articles 1-30

  1. Everyone is born free and equal.
  2. Everyone is entitled to the rights listed in the document.
  3. Everyone has a right to life, freedom, and safety.
  4. No one has the right to enslave anyone.
  5. No one has the right to torture or abuse anyone.
  6. Everyone has rights no matter where he or she is.
  7. The law is the same for everyone and everyone is equal before the law.
  8. Everyone’s rights are protected by the law.
  9. No one has the right to place anyone in prison with no good reason or exile anyone from his or her country.
  10. Everyone is entitled to a fair and public trial by an independent party.
  11. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Everyone has a right to prove his or her innocence.
  12. Everyone has a right to privacy and protection of his or her name.
  13. Everyone has the right to move within his or her country and travel as he or she wishes.
  14. Everyone has the right to go to another country if he or she fears for safety in his or her own country.
  15. Everyone has the right to a nationality and no one should be deprived of his or her nationality or denied change of nationality.
  16. Everyone has the right to marry and build a family. Marriage should only be entered into with free and full consent of each spouse. Every family has the right to be protected by society and by the State.
  17. Everyone has the right to own property and share property. No one has to right to take or deprive another of his or her property.
  18. Everyone has the right to believe what he or she wants to believe in, the right to religion, and the right to change his or her religion.
  19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
  20. Everyone has the right to assemble together in peace. No one has the right to force another into a group or association.
  21. Everyone has the right to democracy, to participate in his or her government, and the right to choose his or her leaders.
  22. Everyone has the right to social security: housing, education, childcare, medical assistance, and welfare.
  23. Everyone has the right to employment, the right to choose his or her employer, the right to equal compensation, and the right to join a trade union.
  24. Everyone has the right to vacation and holidays with pay from work.
  25. Everyone has the right to food and shelter to maintain a healthy way of living.
  26. Everyone has the right to an education.
  27. Everyone has the right to protect his or her artistic and intellectual creations. No one can copy one’s creations without his or her permission.
  28. Everyone is entitled to proper social order where these rights are fully realized and recognized.
  29. Everyone has a duty to protect the rights and freedoms of others.
  30. No one can take away anyone’s human rights.

Additional reading

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with Optional Protocol

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) is an international treaty that pushes and monitors national legislation to implement accessibility as a human right for people with disabilities. In other words, the UN CRPD is a binding human rights treaty and serves as a framework for legal advocacy. It was adopted in 2006, and has acquired 163 UN member states signatures and 181 ratifications/accessions. On an American-centric note, the US signed it in 2009, but never ratified it. ☹

In 2008 the Optional Protocol was launched, which implemented the competencies and rights of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to monitor and accept complaints. It strengthened the UN CRPD by giving people with disabilities an additional tool to fight discrimination and exclusion.

The UN CRPD’s 50 articles (not posted in detail here) instruct governments, in regard to people with disabilities, to address the following ideas:

  • communication about & with people with disabilities
  • health care, habilitation, & rehabilitation
  • reasonable accommodation and accessibility
  • assistive technologies
  • access to information and information technology
  • independent living and self-determined decisions
  • personal mobility (buildings, transports, public spaces)
  • social, economic, employment, educational, political, recreational, sport, cultural, and legal activities
  • monitoring and reporting the progress and claiming disrespect by national and international human rights institutions

Additionally, the UN CRPD includes ICT, AT, accessibility, and universal design in most of its articles. Those concepts proved to be a driving force for acceptance of the treaty.

A general overview of the 50 articles of the UN CRPD articles:

  1. Purpose
  2. Definitions
  3. General principles
  4. General obligations
  5. Equality and non-discrimination
  6. Women with disabilities
  7. Children with disabilities
  8. Awareness-raising
  9. Accessibility
  10. Right to life
  11. Situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies
  12. Equal recognition before the law
  13. Access to justice
  14. Liberty and security of person
  15. Freedom of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  16. Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse
  17. Protecting the integrity of the person
  18. Liberty of movement and nationality
  19. Living independently and being included in the community
  20. Personal mobility
  21. Freedom of expression and opinion, and access to information
  22. Respect for privacy
  23. Respect for home and the family
  24. Education
  25. Health
  26. Habilitation and rehabilitation
  27. Work and employment
  28. Adequate standard of living and social protection
  29. Participation in political and public life
  30. Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport
  31. Statistics and data collection
  32. International cooperation
  33. National implementation and monitoring
  34. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  35. Reports by States Parties
  36. Consideration of reports
  37. Cooperation between States Parties and the Committee
  38. Relationship of the Committee with other bodies
  39. Report of the Committee
  40. Conference of States Parties
  41. Depository
  42. Signature
  43. Consent to be bound
  44. Regional integration organizations
  45. Entry into force
  46. Reservations
  47. Amendments
  48. Denunciation
  49. Accessible format
  50. Authentic texts

Marrakesh Treaty (MVT)

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled (MVT) was created by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and adopted in 2013 in Marrakesh, Morocco. It became legally binding in 2016. The U.S. joined the treaty in 2019 via the S.2559 Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act.

In short, the Marrakesh Treaty allows organizations to convert texts into an accessible and usable format (e.g. braille or audio) for blind, visually impaired, and print disabled without violating copyright.

I can remember when this one when it was first created. I was finishing up library school at the time. There was quite a bit of buzz in the library community about the possibility of an exemption that would widen the access of library materials. It’s amazing to me to see that the US finally joined the treaty this year.

Additional reading

In conclusion

A lot of groundwork has happened to get people talking, thinking, and enforcing the civil rights of people with disabilities. Efforts like these take many people, many perspectives, and time. It began with a global declaration, followed up by global treaties. Next, I’ll approach several civil rights, procurement, and industry-specific laws that have been established across the globe, thanks to the UN Declaration and UN Convention that paved the way toward a more inclusive world.

5 Accessibility Myths

During my preparation for the WAS exam I touched on the following myths about accessibility (Day 87: Guidelines, Laws, and Myths), but this time around I’ll go into greater detail from the Deque course I’m taking. You can also read Carie Fisher’s wonderfully written article (with great visuals!): 5 Digital Accessibility Myths Busted, which is also from Deque.

Accessibility only benefits a small minority

Misleading. As I stated in Benefits of Accessible Design, accessibility benefits more than just people with disabilities (note: they are a significant 20% of the population). Accessibility often makes sites and products more usable (see Usability and Accessibility), which is good for everyone. Other specific benefits for everyone:

  • improved mobile device experience
  • improved browsing experience for people who don’t use the latest and greatest browser, operating system, or computer
  • improved web indexing and search engine optimization (SEO) with increased findability
  • improved user experience for an aging population
  • consistent experience for people who acquire a temporary disability

Accessibility is a short-term project

Laughable! We would all love to have every aspect of our work be a short-term project. One-off and done, right? Accessibility is no exceptions. It’s an on-going design requirement that deserves just as much attention as security and performance each time a new roll-out happens. That means that accessibility needs to:

  • be part of the design process from start to finish (see Day 31: A11y throughout a Product’s Lifecycle, Waterfall vs. Agile)
  • be part of company culture (remember, an organization is only as strong as the weakest link in their chain)
  • have committed resources & jobs within an organization
  • involve actual people with disabilities, like adding people with disabilities to teams (nothing about us, without us)

Accessibility should be the last step

Oh myyy. I’ve spent the last couple years teaching co-workers how to remediate inaccessible documents and webpages. Please, please please… don’t save accessibility as the last step. Otherwise, you will have a lot of frustrated and angry people on your hands.

Accessibility may seem like it takes more time at the beginning, but really it’s the forethought that intimidates people. Users will thank you for that forethought, though. Bolting on accessibility at the end is what really costs you more time (and sometimes money) after you realize the late solution didn’t work (fit) and has to be fixed again (and again). Not to mention, accessibility often gets neglected more when it really does get hard during retrofitting, which then puts the organization at risk of facing a lawsuit.

Accessibility is hard & expensive

Speaking of hard (and expensive), let’s address that issue, which should be a non-issue. Accessibility isn’t free, but the cost of implementation is reasonable compared to the cost of its alternatives. Why?

  • Consistent maintenance is cost-effective (especially when including accessibility from the start).
  • Lawsuits are expensive.
  • Bad publicity and ruined reputation is costly.

Accessibility is ugly

Aesthetics versus accessibility seems like one of the most controversial points recently. I’ve definitely got some strong feelings about it, myself. In reality, inaccessible designs are a lack of creativity rather than a barrier due to accessibility. To further address this battle between design and accessibility, my experience is that people don’t fully understand what makes a site or app accessible when they argue for a “prettier” design. So much of accessibility is invisible to people who don’t use assistive technology or adaptive strategies as a way to use the internet. Text alternatives, semantic markup, keyboard operability, reading order, captions, audio description, label and input association, headers and captions for data tables, and defined page language are things that ask nothing at the expense of aesthetics. If all a designer cares about are rigid color palettes and hiding “ugly” functionality and content (e.g. skip to main content link, acronym expansion, or text & image balance), then the medium of the web may not be the best place to practice design. The web is for everyone.

Additional reading