Vol. 24 No. 11 (November 2014) pp. 530-532

HUMAN RIGHTS & DISABILITY ADVOCACY, by Maya Sabetello and Marianna Schulze (eds). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2014. 320pp. Cloth $59.95 £39.00. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4547-9.

Reviewed by Christopher A. Riddle, Department of Philosophy and Applied Ethics Institute, Utica College, NY. E-mail:

HUMAN RIGHTS & DISABILITY ADVOCACY is a collection of original, analytical and explanatory essays that explore the nuances of the articles that make up the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). As Sabetello and Schulze powerfully highlight, this “eighth UN ‘core’ human rights treaty marks a shift that elevates persons with disabilities from being remarkably invisible within human rights discourse to being protected by a multilateral treaty that frames all human rights as accessible and inclusive” (pp. 1-2).

The thought that people with disabilities exist outside of the scope of justice is a deeply entrenched belief and one that the CRPD challenges directly. People with disabilities live across cultures and classes and can no longer be viewed as inferior, irrelevant, or as Sabetello and Schulze suggest, as being an invisible group of people. As I have highlighted in DISABILITY AND JUSTICE, “the 2011 World Report on Disability, released by the World Health Organization, estimates that more than one billion people in the world (approximately 15 percent of our population) live with a disability and that nearly 200 million of these people experience difficulties in functioning” (Riddle 2014, p. 2). This startling statement reveals just how important the CRPD was and continues to be. As Don MacKay remarks in the foreward: “[a]ttitudes need to change in society and in governments. Our world needs to better accommodate diversity, and our societies need to be much more inclusive and accessible. Persons with disabilities need to be more empowered. This is what the Convention seeks to achieve…” (p. xiii).

It perhaps comes as no surprise then that I stress the importance of this contribution to the literature. To have a collection of individuals such as the authors in HUMAN RIGHTS & DISABILITY ADVOCACY – the people who created the foundation of the CRPD’s contents – be able to tell the story of how the Convention was created and negotiated is at once both incredibly interesting and important as a collection of essays that advances knowledge in the area of disability rights. Sabetello and Schulze have done an admirable job in gathering the essays that comprise HUMAN RIGHTS & DISABILITY ADVOCACY.

By focusing on questions associated with activists and how well their ideals were translated into policy, the reader gains insight into what strategies were successful, which failed, and what potential alternatives might have been endorsed. In addition to the wonderful retrospective insights gained, numerous chapters look forward to explore how disability rights activists might continue to encourage the implementation of the Convention. It is perhaps here where HUMAN RIGHTS & DISABILITY ADVOCACY shines brightest. While the nuanced examinations of the CRPD through the variety of lenses put forth adds incredible insight into the creation of the Convention, it is the discussions by Schulze, and Byrnes that close out the collection that add tremendous insight into how we can [*530] continue to monitor the Convention and involve other human rights institutions in its implementation.

With that in mind, Sabetello and Schulze organized the book with two explicit goals in mind. As they indicate, “the chapters are intended to demonstrate diversity in the kinds of NGOs and civil society representatives involved in the process” (p. 11). This was undeniably achieved and leads to an incredibly rich reading experience. As Sabetello and Schulze rightly highlight, “[a]dvocates for similar substantive issues…advocate in different ways depending on their organization’s size and geographical scope of action” (p. 11).

The second organizational goal involved the essays moving from “more specific issues to overarching themes: from the crucial issue of legal capacity to inclusion, to some groups who tend to be more vulnerable and whose extent of success in incorporating their interests in the Convention varies…” (p. 11). I fear this aspect of the design was less successful and transitions were often muddy. It is admirable how much ground the book covers, but as such, transitions need to be made clear and it is likely that most readers will be unfamiliar with all topics explored and thus, be unlikely to pick up on subtle topic changes and nuanced segues. In this sense, the admirable fluid nature of the chapters complicates things for those with a less than thorough grasp on the articles of the Convention or the topics being addressed within them.

That said, the book begins with Sabatello familiarizing readers with the history of the international disability rights movement. This is done skillfully and as the CRPD emerged as a result of a paradigm shift in the way disability was conceptualized, such an introduction was both insightful and simply put, necessary. That said, the brevity with which this transition to the social model of thinking was treated might limit accessibility to newcomers which is a tremendous shame as the contents of the book prompts an interest from not only those familiar with the origins and shaping of the CRPD, but to those new to it as well. Of course, Oliver and Barnes are mentioned as some of the leading thinkers that conceptualized the British social model, prompting a shift away from medical or individual pathological approaches to disabilities.

Unfortunately, little is said of the important tension now existing between social model proponents and people like Shakespeare (2006) who believes that while impairment may not be a sufficient cause of the injustice faced by people with disabilities, they nonetheless, are necessary (p. 34). In other words, there is no discussion of the tension between social model advocates and so-called interactional theorists who believe, as I have stated elsewhere, that “disability ought to be regarded as a complex interaction between the traits inherent to a person (or one’s impairment), and how these traits manifest themselves in the environment they find themselves in (the disabling facts of one’s impairment)” (Riddle 2014, p. 15). This is important not only for historical purposes or for purposes concerning the application of the Convention moving forward, but because of how this interactional model is intimately tied to other important international documents like the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) that moves beyond looking solely at medical or biological functioning as a determinant of disability, to how the environment and other contextual factors address impairment. This moves beyond a strict medical or social model of disability into the realm of interactional approaches. A failure to discuss this tension [*531] and documents like the ICF leaves the Convention to work in isolation, rather than in conjunction with other ideals.

This criticism might seem somewhat churlish in light of all that Sabatello and Schulze have done with HUMAN RIGHTS AND DISABILITY ADVOCACY and perhaps it is. It is a minor criticism and care must be taken to not overstate it. Indeed, many under-represented and varied perspectives are put forth and the book is an excellent one at least in part, because of this. Most notably of which are perhaps Hickey’s thoughtful discussion of Indigenous people with disabilities, and Toledo’s discussion of the global south. While Toledo presents the fascinating perspective of a member “of a small, national DPO based in Chile” (p. 170), Hickey discussed the “marginalized of the marginalized,” focusing on indigenous people who often represent some of the most disadvantaged, impoverished, and powerless individuals in society, prior to factoring in the further effects of disability (p. 158).

In short, HUMAN RIGHTS & DISABILITY ADVOCACY is an excellent book with broad appeal to policy makers, medical professionals and caregivers, legal professionals, and disability rights advocates or disability scholars more generally. It is hard to recommend this book to those completely unfamiliar with the debate as they may very well get lost without a more solid roadmap and conceptual primer being provided to them. That said, the variety of perspectives provided in the text leave me to wonder who would not benefit from, or have interest in, at least some of this collection. HUMAN RIGHTS & DISABILITY ADVOCACY is skillfully crafted, carefully blending the conceptual with the historical and political, all the while never losing sight of what is most important: the rights and experiences of people with disabilities.


Riddle, Christopher A. 2014. DISABILITY AND JUSTICE: THE CAPABILITIES APPROACH IN PRACTICE. Lexington: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield.

Shakespeare, Tom. 2006. DISABILITY RIGHTS AND WRONGS. New York: Routledge.

World Health Organization. 2001. INTERNATIONAL CLASSIFICATION OF FUNCTIONING, DISABILITY, AND HEALTH. Geneva: World Health Organization.

© Copyright 2014 by the author, Christopher A. Riddle.