Citizenship and disability

We have seen before that cultural practices such as polygamy can act as a barrier to acquiring citizenship. Another barrier is disability. Today we therefore look at the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force in 2008. Its preamble describes disability as an evolving concept and states that ‘disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’.




The relation between nationality and (denial of) citizenship is a seriously understudied subject and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a relatively obscure instrument. As for the right of persons with disabilities to a nationality the Convention mainly repeats the principles already enshrined in other international instruments. Still, in light of state practices that consider disability a barrier to access to citizenship the Convention can be relevant in condemning certain health requirements for naturalization in light of Article 18(1), which reads:


States Parties shall recognize the rights of persons with disabilities to liberty of movement, to freedom to choose their residence and to a nationality, on an equal basis with others, including by ensuring that persons with disabilities:
a) Have the right to acquire and change a nationality and are not deprived of their nationality arbitrarily or on the basis of disability;
b) Are not deprived, on the basis of disability, of their ability to obtain, possess and utilize documentation of their nationality or other documentation of identification, or to utilize relevant processes such as immigration proceedings, that may be needed to facilitate exercise of the right to liberty of movement;
c) Are free to leave any country, including their own;
d) Are not deprived, arbitrarily or on the basis of disability, of the right to enter their own country.

In Italy, for example, there have been cases in which the Ministry of Interior denied citizenship to applicants who were affected by Down Syndrome, and were consequently deemed ‘incapable of discernment and unable to take the pledge’ as demanded under Italian law.


Related to the Italian practice is that on 19 May 2015, the Human Rights Committee issued a ruling in which it found that Denmark violated Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. By refusing, without giving any reason, to exempt an Iraqi refugee from the Danish language proficiency needed for citizenship despite his documented mental disability, Denmark was found to discriminate in access to naturalization.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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