Sunday, 14 June 2009

Writing Wrongs

Another step on the paper trail of rights

Conventions guaranteeing rights are all very well, but at the end of day it is action by real human beings, at every level in society, that turns paper aspiration into the kind of fiery principles that burn in our hearts and minds, writes Mark Cantrell

THE UK Government has ratified an international ‘Bill of Rights’ that recognises and aims to protect the human rights and freedoms of disabled people. Even as it has embraced the principles enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, however, it has done so on a ‘pick and choose’ basis; rather suggesting that disabled people can have their rights, but only when – and where – it suits policy agenda.

Even so, that didn’t stop the Government from patting itself on the back. Jonathan Shaw, Minister for Disabled People, said: “The ratification of the Convention is a very significant landmark, for disabled people and for UK Government and society as a whole. Not only does it show the Government’s commitment to equality of human rights for disabled people, but our determination to achieve equality by 2025. There are an estimated 650 million disabled people in the world, including over 10 million in the UK. Now that we have ratified, we can start implementing the Convention.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed in New York back in March, with the Government finally ratifying it this month (June). The document is designed to promote, protect and ensure the human rights, freedom and dignity of disabled people. The document sets out the rights that disabled people should be able to enjoy on the same basis as other people. It also sets out the obligations on states to protect, promote and ensure those rights. Furthermore, it sets out guidance on how rights and equalities should be interpreted from the perspective of disabled people all over the world.

Despite the significance of the Convention’s ratification, the Government chose to opt out of certain key areas: namely education, immigration, defence and benefits. This hasn’t gone down in one smooth swallow, as far as some disability rights campaigners are concerned, but even so they have acknowledged the significance of the ratification – as far as it goes – and the legal frameworks this establishes for people with disabilities.

Alice Maynard, Chair of the national disability charity Scope, is also a member of the United Nations Convention Campaign Coalition (UNCCC), which has campaigned vigorously for the Convention to be ratified. She welcomed it as a “momentous day for disabled people’s rights in the UK”. It was, after all, billed as the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century – and acknowledges the inequalities currently faced by disabled people in the UK.

“The Convention gives disabled people in Britain a legal framework that protects and promotes our rights and freedoms as equal citizens,” she said. “The need for the treaty is more urgent than ever in light of the widespread breaches of disabled people’s human rights both in the UK and across the globe.”

However, as far as the opt-outs go, she added: “It is a shame that the Government has not taken the opportunity to remove reservations in several areas and ratify the Convention in its entirety. However, we must now look ahead – to focus on making these rights a reality and ensure the Convention is efficiently implemented so that disabled people are able to enjoy full inclusion as equal citizens in our society.”

Some of the rights expressed, such as the right to dignity, freedom, equality and justice, are already regarded as universal among the able-bodied populations, so it begs a rather sinister question why these rights should need a particular protection for disabled people. Are disabled people not human, one might ask? Alas, all too often, throughout the world, the humanity of the disabled is often called into question, if not in word, then in deed.

And such views can reside uncomfortably close to home, in the very heart of so-called ‘enlightened societies’, as a survey carried out by Scope suggests. It found a high level of perception that those with disabilities are somehow ‘inferior’. Though the survey also showed a high degree of support for equalities for this group, it shows not only that people are a paradoxical breed, but also reveals the seeds of why a targeted expression of what are otherwise universal human rights is needed. To perceive some inherent ‘inferiority’ in one group can, if left unchallenged, and if the circumstance arise, be a step towards denying the group’s humanity – and it takes little imagination to see the kind of slippery slope this might become.

While such surveys are inevitably imperfect and limited they nevertheless can glean some worthwhile snapshots of perception. They provide food for thought, rather than empirical verdicts, so while they must be taken with a large dose of salt, they are nevertheless instructive. In this snapshot, some 2,000 UK adults took part in an online survey carried out by the polling firm ComRes, and some 53 per cent said they thought most people in Britain saw disabled people as inferior.

Following this line, 56 per cent thought that disabled people were seen as ‘victims’ or ‘figures of pity’ while 38 per cent said they were seen as a ‘drain on resources’.

On a more positive note, the survey revealed a high degree of support for disabled people’s equalities. Some 83 per cent responded that would complain if they saw disabled people being treated unfairly, while 59 per cent said they would like to help raise awareness about the importance of access for disabled people.

When asked what measures are needed to tackle discrimination against disabled people there was a strong support for improvements to public transport services to make them more accessible. This was backed by 93 per cent in the survey, just ahead of those who wanted to see better access to public buildings, and tougher measures against those who occupy accessible parking spaces without a blue badge.

“Our survey unearthed some fascinating findings, showing that most people recognise that disabled people are generally viewed in a negative way in British society,” said Maynard. “This certainly chimes with my own experience as a disabled person, and that of many of the disabled people we work with, who have to battle stereotypes, low expectations and sometimes outright hostility in our daily lives. However, it is encouraging that there is strong public support to tackle discrimination against disabled people. This shows a real willingness to make the changes needed for disabled people to be treated more fairly and equally.”

Towards the end of May, before the ratification of the Convention, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) released its periodic report into how the UK measures up to the Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights. This is a treaty that came into force in 1976 and to which 160 states are signed up to; it recognised, among many things, the rights to work, to form trades unions, rights to an education, social security and more.

The latest review of the UK’s performance found that despite some improvements, some groups in the UK – disabled people being one of them – continue to experience significant inequalities in wages, access to health and housing and other social services. For all the advances made, and it can only boost the significance of the Convention’s ratification, it shows there is a long way to go in reducing the divide between the life experiences and chances generally experienced by people with disabilities and those who have none.

“[T]he most disadvantaged groups in Britain still struggle to enjoy equality in terms of their fundamental rights to work, housing and health which a fair society should guarantee,” said John Wadham, of the Equality & Human Rights Commission.

Treaties and conventions, reports and surveys, can do nothing in themselves to enforce and improve human rights, or the freedom to take part on an equal basis in society, but they can play an important informative role, raising awareness and stirring others to action. In many ways, they are the paper equivalent of hot air, but there’s the thing – sometimes hot air can get us heated up enough to take matters into our own hands.

Ultimately, that’s where the difference lies – in the concerted action of people fired up with a desire to forge a fair and equal world. The rest is just the paper trail, recording progress – or the lack of it.


Snapshots of disability

  • Around 10 per cent of the world’s population live with a disability. In terms of real numbers that is some 650 million people worldwide, according to the UN. They are the world’s largest, but in many ways least regarded, minority
  • In countries with life expectancies over 70, individuals spend an average eight years – 11.5 per cent of their life span – living with disabilities, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
  • Eighty per cent of people with disabilities live in developing countries, according to the UN Development Programme.
  • Disability rates are significantly higher among group with lower education attainment in the countries of the OECD. On average, 19 per cent of the less educated are said to have disabilities, compared to 11 per cent of the better educated.
  • In most OECD countries, women report higher incidents of disability than men.
  • 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 with disabilities are recognised to face multiple disadvantages, experiencing exclusion on the grounds of both their disability and their gender. Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
  • According to UNICEF 30 per cent of street youths are disabled.
  • Mortality for children with disabilities may be as high as 80per cent in countries where under-five mortality as a whole has decreased below 20 per cent, says the UK Department for International Development. It adds that in some cases it is as if children are being ‘weeded out’.
  • In the UK, 75 per cent of companies on the FTSE 100 on the London Stock Exchange are said to not meet basic levels of web accessibility, causing them to lose out on more than $147 million in revenue.

Mark Cantrell,
14 June 2009

Copyright © June 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Category: SOCIETY



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