By Susan Treadwell
Injustice against people with disabilities has happened not deliberately but because of a lack of deliberation.
—Irish president Mary McAleese
President Mary McAleese’s words were a fitting opening to the Open Society Foundations conference on disability rights in Ireland earlier this month. The conference brought together people from around our network to examine the Foundations’ ongoing work on this issue and explore new opportunities for engagement.
The president, who grew up with a deaf brother, is an avid supporter of disability rights and her speech set the tone for the meeting. As a child she spoke of sometimes forgetting during family conversations that if her brother could not see her lips he could not follow what was being said. Memories of her brother tugging her elbow and saying “remember me,” served as a reminder that full participation should be a right and not a gift.
President McAleese called for people to “open their eyes, ears, and imagination to an inclusive society” and said change would require addressing legislative, practical, and attitudinal obstacles. But the three days in Dublin reinforced another major obstacle: even within the human rights community there is often reluctance to take on disability rights. This despite the fact that ten percent of the world’s population has a disability and some of the most profound levels of exclusion and rights violations happen to people with disabilities.
Human rights organizations have shied away from making disability rights part of their mandate for a number of reasons. Advocates talked about the fact that the human rights community is relatively small and the lingering perception that disability is a medical rather than a civil rights issue. Furthermore, the fact that many mainstream human rights groups have sidelined disability rights for so long has created trust issues within the disability community. There are, however, examples of mainstream human rights organizations incorporating a disability framework into their work: Interights and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee are two such positive examples.
While challenges exist, there have been significant strides made on the international level. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, the fastest ratified UN treaty, has added new momentum to the fight. And Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the shifts in language around disability over the last 30 years reflect a movement away from a charity mindset to one of equal rights.
The Open Society Foundations will continue to explore opportunities for human rights advocates and organizations to champion disability rights and promote a framework of inclusion of people with disabilities into all aspects of life rather than one that focuses on people’s impairments. We cannot expect the general public and policymakers to recognize that disability rights are at the core of human rights when the mainstream human rights community has yet to do so. After all, by failing to remember what people with disabilities can do as opposed to focusing on what they can’t, we are all the poorer.
Susan Treadwell is deputy director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.