United Nations meeting identifies gaps in the protection of the rights of older persons with disabilities

In order to identify and better address the specific challenges faced by older persons with disabilities the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar and the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte hosted an Expert meeting on supporting autonomy and independence of older persons with disabilities.

The meeting, which took place in New York on 25 and 26 October 2017, brought together approximately 25 experts from UN entities, organisations of persons with disabilities and older persons, civil society, States and academia. Being the first UN meeting focusing on the intersection of ageing and disability, this was an important opportunity to strengthen the collaboration between the community of older persons and the community of persons with disabilities.

Ms. Nena Georgantzi, Human Rights Officer of AGE Platform Europe, took part in the meeting bringing forward the experiences of persons living in the EU who acquire disabilities in older age. Participants highlighted that although the CRPD covers older people with support needs, its implementation has not paid sufficient attention to the situation of older people neither to the age-based biases that may lead to fewer services or choices as people get older.

Discrimination on disability and older age

Experiences from different regions showcased that State policies, services and administration often separate older persons from persons with disabilities leading to diverging levels of protection of the rights of the two populations, but also diverse procedures for accessing entitlements. Older people are often faced with age limits and other age-related barriers in accessing disability benefits, support and services. The unfavourable treatment of older persons with disabilities often remains unnoticed or is considered ‘objectively justified’.

Autonomy and legal capacity

Older people are often deprived of the ability to make autonomous choices either in formal (ex. Guardianship) or informal ways (ex. Being forced to enter into institutions without their consent, not having a say what to eat, etc.). Empirical research in some countries has shown that the majority of cases of guardianship concern older people and that court decisions are often biased, making more probable to declare an older person fully incapable to take decisions regardless of whether they actually have a cognitive disability.

Independent living

The right to live independently and to choose where and with whom to live is important both for older persons and people with disabilities. However, this was the issue that revealed the most tension among the two groups. For the disability community, any type of care provided in a residential setting (i.e. outside private homes of individuals) entails an increased risk of segregating people with disabilities and is therefore considered as a violation of human rights.

While agreeing that everyone should have equal opportunities to live in the community, older people’s representatives also stressed the risk of elder abuse and mistreatments at home by informal carers or relatives due to the absence of support to older people and their families. Conversely, they gave examples of residential settings which enhance older people’s autonomy and fight social isolation while they remain open to the community (for example, they host restaurants, libraries or kindergartens open to the public). It was agreed that further discussion on the types of support that should be available to the two groups is necessary.

Assistive Devices and Technologies

The Independent Expert on the rights of older persons presented the findings of her report on the impact of automation on the rights of older persons. Experts agreed that technologies can enable older people to live more independently, but they also entail some risks for their privacy, autonomy and dignity. They should be seen only as one form of support to older people and as an additional layer to human assistance. It was also noted that the majority of persons with disabilities do not have access to basic assistive devices (such as wheelchairs, glasses, etc.) and this is a key inequality issue that impedes the equal participation of people of all ages.

Moving forward: enhancing the attention on the rights of older persons with disabilities

The meeting revealed that older persons are routinely faced with ageism, which impacts the equal enjoyment of their disability rights. Unfortunately existing human rights instruments have paid very little attention to the rights of older persons. Several participants stressed the need to include a clear prohibition of age discrimination in a new UN convention. In this way, it would be easier for the bodies that monitor UN conventions, but also for States and civil society to detect discriminatory policies and measures and to avoid perpetuating ageism when they implement UN instruments, such as the CRPD.

AGE also follows the implementation of the CRPD by the European Union and answers to consultations of UN bodies around disability rights. We have for instance clarified how older persons understand their right to live independently in the community and we have moreover highlighted the discriminatory treatment of people who acquire disabilities in older age. You may access our positions on these issues through the below links.

If you want to learn more about the CRPD, its impact at national and EU level and how it applies to older people you may also read the relevant chapter of our online Self-Advocacy Handbook. For more information you can also contact Nena Georgantzi, nena.georgantzi@age-platform.eu

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