Persons with Disabilities: Objects of "Charity and Pity" No More

UNITED NATIONS Copyright - A new treaty designed to promote and protect the rights of the world's 650 million persons with disabilities opens for signature at the United Nations on Friday.

At its core, the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ensures that persons with disabilities enjoy the same human rights as everyone else, and are able to lead their lives as fully-fledged citizens who can make valuable contributions to society.

Once the convention is ratified, "We will no longer be objects of charity and pity," Thomas Schindlmayr, a U.N. disability expert, told reporters here Thursday.

"Just two days ago, because of my impairment, I would have had severe limitations here -- there was no ramp to the podium," Schindlmayr noted of the U.N. headquarters press briefing room. Using this example, he stressed that the problems commonly associated with disabilities have more to do with the environment than with the disabled themselves.

In a perfect world, the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be enough to protect everyone, according to the U.N.

But in practice, certain groups -- such as women, children and refugees -- have fared far worse than others, and international conventions are in place to protect and promote the human rights of these groups.

The disabled often lack the opportunities taken for granted by mainstream populations. They encounter a myriad of physical and social obstacles that prevent them from going to school, getting jobs, accessing information, obtaining proper health care -- and from "fitting in" and being accepted.

Under the convention, "We get the right to own properties, to sign documents, to live where and with whom we want, to acquire an education, a standard of living, a job on an equal basis with others," Lex Grandia, president of the World Federation of the DeafBlind (WFDB), a Denmark-based group, told IPS.

"I strongly believe that this new instrument comes at a time when there are broad shifts in attitudes within societies towards the rights of persons with disabilities," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told a panel in Geneva Monday.

Arbour called on member states to protect and respect the rights of the disabled -- who comprise 10 percent of the world's population, the world's largest minority -- by implementing the landmark convention, and added that she plans to elevate the profile of this issue by ensuring that her office takes the lead in establishing partnerships with civil society and governments.

Sheikha Hessa al-Thani, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Disability, said that the "complementary relationship" between the two areas -- social development and human rights -- to which the issue of people with disabilities belongs "had now found expression in the brilliant document," the convention.

"Disability will move from the charity model to a human rights model," Robert Martin, a member of the British-based Inclusion International, told IPS.

"The convention gives us a set of principles as to how existing human rights in other U.N. conventions should apply to those of us with a disability," Martin said, adding that, "Practices and policies, including those in the social welfare sphere, will have to change to meet the new standards."

Speaking from the perspective of a person with an intellectual disability, Martin said the convention "will focus attention on those of us who have often been invisible or hidden away from society."

"All too often we were not treated as full citizens even in our own country. Laws passed to protect us were often used against us," Martin stressed.

Grandia agreed. "There are laws preventing us from taking roles in society, such as being a judge, juror, witness, exercising rights such as the right to vote and exercising legal capacity by making our own decisions," he said, adding that there are also laws on the books "authorizing sterilization, institutionalization and forced medical interventions."

"All these laws are incompatible with the convention and a human rights-based approach to disability, and must be eliminated," Grandia stressed.

More than 50 countries -- including Algeria, Austria, Chile, China, El Salvador, Germany, South Africa and Thailand -- have indicated that they will sign the new convention on Friday.

Some 30 countries -- including Brazil, Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, Ghana, Italy, Jordan, Luxembourg and Seychelles -- will also sign the Convention's Optional Protocol on Communications, which will allow individuals petitioning on alleged rights violations to invoke a committee of experts once all national recourse procedures have been exhausted.

A.L. Abdul Azeez, deputy permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the U.N., told IPS Thursday that Sri Lanka, in hopes of becoming a "regional trendsetter" in this area, has already taken the necessary steps to implement the convention prior to its signing and ratification.

"These steps include the introduction of accessibility and usability measures for disabled persons in public places and within the transport sector," Azeez said.

Asked why some countries would not sign the convention, Martin told IPS that "some countries may not sign because they may feel they do not have the resources that will be needed to make the convention a reality."

The countries that concern Martin most are the ones who "were not in the room" at the Ad-Hoc Committee negotiating sessions in New York which led to the adoption of the final draft of the convention.

Martin said that many of the countries that did not participate were from the South, and he noted that civil society groups from the South were also noticeably absent from negotiations.

"Those who negotiated the convention realized that there would be certain costs involved in its implementation, but the convention does not impose a timeline, it does not say that all buildings need to be renovated ASAP," Schindlmayr told IPS.

"There is only one thing that the convention says that should be done right away - awareness-raising activities," Schindlmayr said. "These activities would not cost a lot, would change people's minds and opinions about disabilities, and would make the most significant change for the lives of people with disabilities."

The United States, which played an important role in the negotiations that led up to the convention, is not expected to sign it on Friday.

"Our view is that the U.S. actually already has in existence on the federal level, the state level and the local level a very good framework of laws and practices to assist citizens with disabilities," Paul Denig, with the U.S. State Department, told The New Standard online newspaper recently.

The framework Denig is referring to is the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

The new convention will enter into force when ratified by 20 countries.

(c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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