Are disability human rights a priority only for the peoples of the Global North? Don’t governments and activists in the Global South have more important human rights issues to prioritize (among them international trade inequities; war, armed conflict, and the trade in small arms that fuels them; the lack of affordable food, housing, and clean water for the poor; torture and sexual violence; and trafficking in people)? (Photo: Market stall owner in Uganda courtesy of "Disability Rights in Uganda Research Blog")
In reality, no government, international organization, or NGO will be able to develop effective legal or political measures to fully address any of those issues without also taking into account the rights, perspectives, and contributions of persons with disabilities (PWD).
The Heights of Disability Access
Recent news stories about Isaac Lidsky, who is said to be the first blind law clerk to work for the United States Supreme Court are inspiring. Lidsky obtained the highly-competitive position after attending top schools and working for the U.S. Department of Justice. Similarly, the recent appointment of David Paterson, who is legally blind, as Governor of New York brought attention to the heights that have been and can continue to be achieved by individuals with disabilities.
Like other U.S. lawyers, judges, political leaders, and law professors who are blind or have vision impairments, they use some of the wide range of adaptive strategies and technologies available to increase independence and access to work, social, and community life. Depending on the nature and extent of vision issues, we use helpful devices that range from the low-tech (the ubiquitous white cane or guide animals) to the high-tech (software and scanners that allow computers to enlarge and read printed text aloud).
First World Privileges?
But are disability rights a luxury issue that only rich Northern states can afford to address? Do the vast majority of PWD even in wealthy countries have access to their basic needs, much less the heights of professional status or media attention? Should disability rights be treated as low priority for those working toward economic and social development and those fighting discrimination and abuse based on racial, ethnic, gender, class, and migration status?
The startling statistics below (excerpted from a recent United Nations Fact Sheet) leave no doubt that the response to all of these questions is a resounding “no”:
► Around 10 per cent of the world’s population, or 650 million people, live with a disability. They are the world’s largest minority.
► Eighty per cent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
► The World Bank estimates that 20 per cent of the world’s poorest people are disabled, and tend to be regarded in their own communities as the most disadvantaged.
► Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse. A small 2004 survey in Orissa, India, found that virtually all of the women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25 per cent of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6 per cent of disabled women had been forcibly sterilized.
► Mortality for children with disabilities may be as high as 80 per cent in countries where under-five mortality as a whole has decreased below 20 per cent, says the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, adding that in some cases it seems as if children are being “weeded out”.
► An estimated 386 million of the world’s working-age people are disabled, says the International Labour Organization (ILO). Unemployment among the disabled is as high as 80 per cent in some countries. Often employers assume that persons with disabilities are unable to work.
► For every child killed in warfare, three are injured and permanently disabled.
Legal, Political, and Moral Obligations
The rights of persons with disabilities are human rights, inherent in their humanity, and to be universally promoted and respected for moral as well as legal reasons. States in both Global North and Global South have recognized the norms of the (now 60-year-old) Universal Declaration of Human Rights and most have also ratified the core treaties that comprise the International Bill of Rights. These legally binding rights apply to PWD wherever they may live. States and the international community have an obligation to respect, protect, fulfill, and promote them for all human beings.
The practical issues involved in implementation cannot serve as an excuse for the failure to recognize or implement the rights of PWD. International law recognizes disparities in economic capacity among states and therefore allows for “progressive realization” of certain rights. But as has been demonstrated, “progressive realization” does not mean “non-realization.” And protecting any human rights (civil, political, economic, social, or cultural) was never a cost-free enterprise.
Often, reasonable accommodations within a specific context are less costly than employers and non-disabled people are led to believe. For example, the UN Fact Sheet notes that a
U.S. survey of employers conducted in 2003 found that the cost of accommodations was only $500 or less; 73 per cent of employers reported that their employees did not require special facilities at all.Economic disparities among states and inadequate technical capacity and infrastructure are realities that pose significant obstacles for both PWD and non-disabled people. Of course, global, regional, and national struggles over the equitable distribution of natural and economic resources continue. Those struggles must be conducted in a context in which the fundamental rights and well-being of people are the primary object.
Still, each government, rich and poor, must also take on the good faith responsibility for ensuring at least that those resources that are available are distributed in a non-discriminatory way, that targeted policies are put in place through law and education to address discriminatory attitudes toward PWD, and to provide reasonable accommodations that allow PWD to participate fully in employment, education, housing, health care, family life, sport, and other aspects of social and political life in their home countries. Such an approach contributes to economic and social development rather than undermines it.
Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPWD) provides for the mainstreaming of disability rights in the creation and implementation of international development programs. The international community (and the individuals and groups who can hold our governments and institutions accountable--see "We Can Do" and "People with Disabilitites--Uganda" websites) should therefore commit to assisting (and learning from) developing countries with regard to the economic resources, the mutually beneficial transfer of culturally-specific information and technology, and other assistance needed to make human rights for PWD a reality.
The non-profit sector has begun to recognize the importance of disability human rights in the Global South. For example, Executive Director Diana Samarasan recently announced the creation of a Disability Rights Fund dedicated to helping countries in the developing world implement the new convention.
Global South Participation
As reported in Part I of this series, the CRPWD was negotiated, adopted, and entered into force rapidly and with widespread acceptance by the international community. Although delegations from the Global North were influential, the negotiation process included active input from developing countries. NGOs from South and North built an important coalition that energized the creation of the convention.
The many official and NGO delegations that were particularly active in the negotiation process included those from Mexico, China, Ireland, Thailand, Canada, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Uganda, India, South Korea, Jamaica, Venezuela, Slovenia, Colombia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Morocco, New Zealand, Sweden, Mali, Serbia-Montenegro, and Russia. Click here for the archives of the negotiations and here for the daily summaries. (Photo: South African human rights lawyer and World Bank Advisor on Disability, Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo )
Some countries from the Global South, such as Mexico, played high profile roles in the negotiations. As previously reported, Jamaica was the first country to ratify the new convention. China is preparing to host the Paralympics this Fall, although its participation in the CRPWD process and hosting of the event is undermined by its own record of continuing human rights violations.
Let’s hope that the multidimensional nature of disability human rights will gain much needed attention as jurisprudence and action around the CRPWD develops. Social justice and human rights demands it, for PWD and for all.
(Next: Some Resources on Disability Human Rights)