OPINION: The Farmer, the Spoon, and the Plow

Posted on 29 March 2008. Filed under: Human Rights, Opinion | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

The Farmer, the Spoon, and the Plow: Why the International Disability Rights Treaty (CRPD) is Worth Celebrating

This allegorical tale is meant to highlight why the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is well worth celebrating—and why our work isn’t done just because it’s about to enter into force.

Historical Note: The CRPD is an international treaty intended to protect a wide range of human rights for people with disabilities, including the right to live in the community (not an institution), to have access to public services, to be free of discrimination, and more. It does not create new rights. Rather, it is meant to ensure that people with disabilities are able to access the same rights that other people in their country already enjoy. This tale was written a month before the CRPD first entered into force on May 3, 2008, with 20 ratifying countries. Today, in October 2009, more than 70 countries have ratified the CRPD and more than 140 countries have signed it. The full text of the CRPD, and a full list of countries signing or ratifying the CRPD, is available at http://www.un.org/disabilities. A country is not fully obligated to obey the treaty until after it not only signs but also ratifies the CRPD.

Before the CRPD Was Created
Once upon a time, there were 650 million farmers who tended to thousands of fields in 200 nations. Some of the fields were more fertile than other fields. Some received more rain and sun than others. Some fields were filled with rocks and other obstacles that made it very hard for farmers to plant and harvest food. In order to do any plowing, the farmers first had to remove the stones. All the fields were very large: it could easily take a farmer many years to finish plowing or harvesting even the smallest field. But even in size, the fields varied greatly.

It was not only the fields that were so dramatically different from each other. Each farmer also had a different set of tools. Some farmers had only tiny teaspoons, some of which were broken and not even working properly. Some farmers had table spoons or even large stirring spoons. A few farmers had been taught how to make shovels and were able to use those.

Farmers with shovels were usually able to plow their fields more quickly than farmers with teaspoons. But sometimes a farmer with a shovel had to clear away so many stones from her field that she would finish far less plowing than a farmer with only a teaspoon but an easier field.

But all the farmers were frustrated. No matter how easy their field was to plow, or how fertile it was, or how much dirt their spoons could hold, all their fields were simply too large to complete with the tools they had. Some farmers despaired of their task, gave up completely, and starved. Some farmers continued to work in grim determination and were able to grow a little food for their trouble. But it was never enough—not because they were lazy or greedy but simply because their tools weren’t powerful enough.

Creating the CRPD; Signing it; Ratifying it
Some of the farmers decided to do something about their deplorable living conditions. These farmers worked together to build a set of plows and agreed to make all the plows available to any farmer who needed them. They named their set of plows the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Sometimes they referred to them more informally as the international disability rights treaty. Or they refered to them as the CRPD for short.

Some of the farmers lived in governments that usually did little to invest in the needs of their farmers. Consequently, these governments choose not to allow their farmers to use the new plows at all. Some of the farmers who had been forbidden to use the plows banded together into various national and international organizations, such as RatifyNow, to pressure their governments to deliver the plows to them. In some cases, the farmers have had success and can now use the CRPD. In other cases, the farmers are still fighting but are experiencing progress.

Some governments made promises to buy these new plows for their farmers. But then they locked the plows into a shed and never got around to allowing the farmers to actually use them. In some cases, farmers in these countries decided the plows were useless for them. After all, their government had bought the plows, but the plows accomplished nothing for them.

In other cases, the farmers realized that the plows themselves were not flawed–the real problem was in the fact that the plows were not being used. They, too, organized themselves to put pressure on their governments to make better use of the plows. After many years of hard work, they convinced their governments to unlock the plows so they could be used.

Now We Have the CRPD, Our Work is Done. Or is it?
Some farmers were allowed to use the plows but did not understand why they would want to. “Look, we already have tools for plowing our fields,” they said. “And what good have they done for us? They still take forever to use. Why would a plow be any better?” They ignored the plows and continued using the tools they knew. They continued to have all the same troubles they had before the plows were built.

Other farmers, at first, were thrilled to have the plows. They allowed the plow to sit in their fields and immediately stopped working. “The plow will take care of all our problems now,” they said. “After, that’s what it’s meant to do, isn’t it? It will fight our poverty and starvation for us. When our governments try to oppress us with harmful laws and regulations, it will fight back for us. When schools deny our children the right to enter the classroom, or when clinics refuse to provide us with health services, then the plows will tell them to stop discriminating against us. The schools and clinics will immediately obey the plows and give us our rights. It’s as simple as that.”

After a few years of allowing their plows to sit untended in their fields, these farmers realized that their fields were still unplowed. The farmers, for their part, were still poor and hungry, their children were still uneducated, and their families were still sick.

They became angry and blamed the plows for being faulty. They sneered at the plows and at the people who had built them. “These plows sure look pretty, but what good are they?” These farmers said. “What do they actually accomplish? If these plows are so wonderful then why are we still poor, hungry, uneducated, and sick?” They abandoned the plows, and so the plows did nothing for them.

Why Do We Need to Learn About the CRPD?
Another group of farmers started using the plows, but they didn’t read the instruction manual that came with them. They did the best they could without the instruction manual. Sometimes they found that they did accomplish more with the plows than they ever had with their spoons and shovels. But still, they were severely disappointed. The plows were not nearly as productive for them as they had initially hoped. They continued using the plows because it was what they had, but they became angry that the plows accomplished so little for them.

Fully Implementing the CRPD
Yet another group of farmers were careful to read the instruction manual thoroughly. They used every feature the plows had in every situation for which these features were helpful.

Farming still did not become magically easy for any of the farmers. They still had to work very hard. Some farmers still had far larger fields than other farmers, and thus took longer to finish their work. Some farmers had to work very slowly because they had to spend so much time clearing away stones before they could use their plows at all. These farmers, too, took longer than other farmers to finish their work.

But all the farmers found that their plows were a vast improvement over the tools they had used before. They were thrilled with the plows and decided to celebrate them.

The Moral of the Tale
So what’s the moral of this allegorical tale?

First, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is potentially a very powerful tool that could accomplish a great deal for people with disabilities around the world. That’s a good thing because the world’s 650 million disabled people are far more likely to live in poverty, or be targeted for violence, or be left behind during natural disasters and wars. The CRPD, if properly understood and properly used, could help with all of these challenges.

But, second, it is only a tool and nothing more. It’s not a magic wand or an instant cure for all that ails. A plow cannot help a farmer if the farmer has no access to it; similarly, the CRPD will be of limited help to people with disabilities if not enough countries ratify it. 

A plow continues to be useless if it is locked up in a shed. Similarly, even a ratified human rights treaty is useless if governments fail to take responsibility for implementing it. Governments must not merely ratify the CRPD but also create and pass laws that are consistent with the CRPD. Governments must abolish laws that are inconsistent with its intent and spirit. And governments must enforce its laws by taking action when they are violated.

The Importance of Grassroots Action
But it is not only governments that must take responsibility for the success of the CRPD. Ordinary citizens, with or without disabilities, must take responsibility for reading the instruction manual—in other words, educating themselves about the CRPD. Then they must learn how to use the CRPD to its maximum potential.

For example, if they realize that disabled people in their country are being denied the chance to go to school, they can go to their government and to the schools and teachers themselves to argue, “The CRPD requires that disabled people have the right to an education. This country has ratified the CRPD. Therefore, if disabled people still face barriers to obtaining an education, then the government and schools are failing in their legal obligations.” This argument could help persuade governments to create better laws, persuade schools to create better policies, and teachers to reconsider their teaching practices.

But organizations can only use these arguments if they first understand that the CRPD addresses the right to an education (see article 24 in the CRPD).

Removing Stones From the Field
Furthermore, people must be prepared to identify and remove obstacles that make it harder to fully implement the CRPD. In other words, they still need to find and remove the stones from their field. The CRPD cannot do this for them.

For example, attitudes and beliefs about disabled people are often a barrier to the full achievement of human rights even after good-quality laws might be put in place. If too many people mistakenly believe that people with disabilities cannot be productive, then few employers will give jobs to disabled people no matter what the law says. This is an obstacle that must be removed before the CRPD can be fully effective.

Article 8 of the CRPD, in fact, clearly acknowledges the importance of attitudes as a potential barrier to the success of the CRPD. This article calls upon ratifying governments to raise awareness in general society about the rights of persons with disabilities.

But the best teachers about the true capability of people with disabilities are people with disabilities themselves. The government can only support the work of educating the public and provide the resources to help make it happen. The disability community still needs to take the lead.

Achieving Human Rights
Just like farmers could still tend to their fields without a plow, disability advocates could still advocate for their rights without the CRPD. But in both cases, their work will be much harder without the proper tools.

Farmers who fail to use their plows will fail to accomplish anything with them. And farmers who fail to remove the stones from their fields will not get very far either. Similarly, disability advocates will not benefit from the CRPD if they do not learn how to use it, or if they neglect to remove the barriers that are blocking the CRPD from success.

But once they do these things, they will start to unleash the true power of the CRPD. It will still take many long years of hard work to realize the full potential of the CRPD. But during these years of sweat and tears, disability advocates can potentially accomplish far more with the CRPD than they could without it.

That’s why it’s worth celebrating the CRPD.

This blog post was written as a contribution for the RatifyNow CRPD Blog Swarm 2008, which was organized to help celebrate and promote the CRPD. A blog swarm is an event in which multiple bloggers or writers agree to write about the same topic at about the same time—in this case, about the CRPD. Please follow the link to read the other entries in the blog swarm.


You can also educate yourself about the CRPD by reading the RatifyNow FAQ.

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2 Responses to “OPINION: The Farmer, the Spoon, and the Plow”

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[…] why the CRPD is well-worth celebrating–and why our work isn’t yet done–in The Farmer, the Spoon, and the Plow. A plow is not a magic potion that will solve all that ails, and neither is the CRPD. But it can be […]


This allegory is brilliant and beautiful. It made me cry. You are an amazing writer and thinker.


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