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Do the ravages of age create a case for UN protection?

Old age is often associated with a reduction in abilities and the denial of human rights. shutterstock

Following the adoption of Resolution 65/182 in 2010, the United Nations formed an Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing. The working group continues to meet and debate whether or not a convention is required to protect ageing people in society.

Old age is often associated with a reduction in abilities and the denial of human rights. One problem that advocates for a proposed Convention on Older Persons have encountered is the overlap between loss of abilities associated with old age and disability. How this debate has played out speaks volumes about how many in the community perceive disability.

Why the call?

One of the primary grounds old-age advocates use to call for a convention is the denial of human rights that is associated with being aged. Many of the more serious human rights abuses occur when older persons experience a reduction in their abilities. For example:

  • A person who has reduced capacity finds their “loved ones” stealing their money or consigning them to undesirable living arrangements;

  • When a person develops mobility impairments they find buildings do not always have lifts or ramps;

  • When a person loses their eyesight they find information communication technologies are not always accessible; or

  • When a person experiences a reduction in their capacity to communicate verbally or in writing they may find authorities less likely to take complaints of abuse seriously.

These are all violations of human rights. Such rights should be protected by UN convention.

But are such rights already protected? The denial of human rights due to a reduction in abilities is protected under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The CRPD provides that a person is disabled where their abilities interact with barriers to equality in society in a way that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. The CPRD’s definition of disability incorporates situations where a person has a reduction in abilities that hinders their full participation in society. This includes reductions in abilities associated with mobility, communicating, sensory capacity and so on.

So, when an older person experiences a reduction in abilities, they will satisfy the CRPD definition of disability. It is immaterial to the definition whether a person has developed their disability at birth, accident or through old age.

Resisting the label

While international law might provide that older persons with reduced abilities are persons with disabilities, some old-age advocates and older persons have resisted the label of disability.

Citing the CRPD, some within the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing have argued that there is already sufficient protection, and that older-age advocates and countries should direct their efforts to protecting those rights. Others have countered that old age should be regarded as something different from disability.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many older persons resist the label of disability. They insist that they are just getting old. This is arguably due to the negative stigma and denial of human rights associated with having a disability.

While the law may not define “disability” as something negative, cultural definitions of disability often do. The meaning of “disability” reflects the notion that the person with a different ability is the opposite of “able”.

The entire debate on whether the reduction of abilities in older age should be constructed as a disability or not seems to ignore the normal human life cycle. People start as babies, become children and then teenagers, grow into adults, then hit middle age, move into old age and eventually deep old age.

Through this process people often start and end their lives with very limited abilities. They often have only a few decades in the middle of peak abilities.

Everyone who survives their childhood and most people who live a long life will experience the state of “disablement”. The human experience is more filled with disability than temporary ablebodiness.

Whether or not a UN convention on old age is required turns on many other factors. The reluctance of many to accept or even debate the intersection between old age and disability highlights how society struggles to construct differences in ability. It should stimulate reflection on how laws and society construct ability in diversity.

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