Older persons with disabilities fall between the cracks of human rights protection

UNSpecialRapporteur-Devandas-Aguilar-photo_webtv_UN The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Ms Catalina Devandas-Aguilar dedicated her annual report to the challenges faced by older persons with disabilities. After analyzing input from 96 governments, NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions, she concluded that the fragmentation of ageing and disability policies leads to several protection gaps that have not been adequately addressed by international human rights norms.

Ageism affects the enjoyment of rights of older persons with disabilities

In her report the Special Rapporteur stressed the impact of ageism explaining that because older persons are perceived as a “burden” or “less deserving”, they are given lower priority in policy, receive services of a lower quality, are excluded from disability benefits and are not equally supported to participate in society. Discriminatory provisions, such as mandatory retirement age and age limits on access to health care, education, social protection and financial services, are frequently considered legitimate. She underlined that older people are perceived as objects of care and welfare and ageing discourse uses a medical lens and as a result, economic considerations continue to dominating ageing policies instead of focusing on autonomy, independence and full participation. Additionally, Ms. Devandas-Aguilar identified biases and inconsistencies in human rights norms. For example, she explained that the Recommendation of the Council of Europe on the promotion of human rights of older persons, adopted in 2014, falls short in upholding all the standards of the Convention. Additionally, the reference to “premature mortality” in the Sustainable Development Goals is of concern, may result in older persons being excluded from efforts to reduce mortality from non-communicable diseases. Moreover, when individuals hold ageist beliefs about themselves, they are not seeking support, not claiming their rights and become isolated.

Differential treatment on the basis of disability and age is not only widespread but also considered necessary and unproblematic, leading to the normalization of practices that would be considered unacceptable for other groups, such as younger persons with disabilities.

Key human rights challenges

Older persons with disabilities are subject to a greater extent to loss of power, denial of autonomy, marginalization, social isolation, exclusion, poverty and abuse. They are more likely to be subject to guardianship, institutionalization, home confinement and involuntary treatment. Persons with dementia are at particular risk of restrictions and are prevented from making decisions. As service models targeting older persons and persons with disabilities are often distinct, persons who acquire an impairment later in life are more likely to receive rudimentary support in the community and have fewer options to live independently.

While younger persons with disabilities are increasingly encouraged and provided with support to live independently, in many countries older persons with disabilities are regularly coerced to reside in long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and care homes. Many of these facilities are in fact segregated institutions, where staff exercise control over the person’s daily life and make decisions about the person’s care, including their placement in segregated locked wards, the administration of chemical restraints such as psychotropic drugs and the use of other physical restraints.

The advocacy opportunities of the CRPD

The Special Rapporteur clarified that older persons with disabilities who encounter barriers to the exercise of their rights owing to disability or age can seek protection under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), regardless of whether they acquired a disability early or later in life. Furthermore, older persons who are perceived as having a disability are also protected by the Convention. The most relevant provisions are the following:

  • obligation to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities, including those based on age, is set out in article 8 (Awareness-raising);
  • the provision of age-appropriate accommodations is referred to in article 13 (Access to justice);
  • the importance of age-sensitive assistance and age-sensitive protection services is recognized in article 16 (Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse);
  • older persons are referred to explicitly in relation to health services to minimize and prevent further impairments in article 25 (Health);
  • and States are called upon to ensure access by older persons with disabilities to social protection programmes and poverty reduction programmes in article 28 (Adequate standard of living and social protection).


The Special Rapporteur called on states to collect disability- and age-disaggregated data to identify and address the barriers faced by older persons with disabilities in exercising their rights across various spheres of life; to adopt a human rights-based approach in all legislation and policies and move away from medical and charity approaches to disability and ageing. To fight ageism and stigma, effective and appropriate measures to raise awareness of older persons as rights-holders in the same way as other members of society are key.

In addition, States have an obligation to immediately repeal all legislation that allows the denial of legal capacity, deprivation of liberty, institutionalization and involuntary treatment of older persons with disabilities on the basis of disability and/or age. The Special Rapporteur moreover asked for the abolition of discriminatory law and policies and for adequate resources to ensure provision of care and support in the community. Finally, States must promote the participation of older persons with disabilities and their representative organisations in all decision-making processes related to the implementation of their rights.

You may read the full report in all UN languages here

For more information you may contact Nena Georgantzi: nena.georgantzi@age-platform.eu

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