May 20, 2010

Our Mini-Theme: Disability and the Law

Joan Durocher

An international treaty on the rights of people with disabilities, known as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 13, 2006, and entered into force after the requisite 20 ratifications on May 3, 2008. The United States signed the treaty last summer, on July 30, 2009. This treaty was the second most rapidly ratified major human rights treaty.

What is a mini-theme on disability law doing in Business Law Today? As Janet Lord discusses in this issue's article on the CRPD, this new treaty is serving not only as a wake-up call for those countries with little or no disability rights framework, but also for other actors, including multilateral corporations, that are beginning to incorporate disability inclusion into their internal human rights policies and into their community outreach and corporate social responsibility work. Disability law reform in many countries will likely trigger obligations for companies working abroad—all important considerations for business lawyers today.

As this process occurs, many international business lawyers may turn to our experiences in the United States with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for lessons learned and technical assistance in incorporating the wide-ranging principles and provisions of the first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century.

For example, the article by John D. Kemp and Aditi Dussault outlines how corporations are beginning to value inclusion of disability-owned businesses in their supplier networks based on a business case that indicates inclusive procurement practices positively influence the position of corporations within the larger community. U.S. Census data indicate that one in five Americans is a person with a disability, and 30 percent of the nation's 69.9 million families have at least one member with a disability. Corporations are beginning to view the disability community as a viable and large marketing segment.

At the same time, the United States has not overcome all of its challenges when it comes to disability rights. In an article analyzing the ADA, William Mailander and Douglas Schwarz point out how U.S. disability civil rights laws distinguish between long-term housing and short-term lodging, and how it will be critical to close this loophole in order to deliver on Congress's promise, in the ADA, of accessibility for vast numbers of Americans who seek to use extended-stay hotels.

Disability inclusion is, albeit slowly, making its way into the common diversity lexicon. William Grignon, in his article examining diversity, disability, and the law firm culture, views the historical framework for including disability in the diversity discussion and the unspoken rules or expectations by which many organizations really operate.

Disability issues clearly cross the spectrum of our legal communities—from hotels, to law firm culture, to international rights and multinational corporations. This growing relevance will, one hopes, spur innovative changes for businesses operating globally—with the added benefit of improving the lives of the more than 600 million people with disabilities around the world.

Joan Durocher