Nothing about us without us


9:51 am - April 11th 2008

by Dave Cole    


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There are 650 million people with disabilities in the world; four-fifths of them live in the developing world. While much has been done in the developed world to improve the lot of people with disabilities and to bring us closer to equality, we are not there yet; things are that much worse in the developing world.

One year ago yesterday, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was opened for signing. It has been signed by 126 states, including the UK, but only ratified by seventeen: Bangladesh, Croatia, Cuba, El Salvador, Gabon, Guinea, Hungary, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Namibia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, San Marino, South Africa and Spain.

Disabilism graphic courtesy of SCOPE

What does the UNCRPD do?
Essentially, it builds on the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (1994) and the World Programme of Action on Disabled Persons (1982), neither of which are binding treaties.

In short, it says ‘nothing about us without us’; participating countries have to change laws and ban discriminatory customs and practices. Partly, these are promoting cultural changes, putting legal principles into place to support those changes, making physical and infrastructure changes and making funds available for those changes.

The BBC enumerates some of the key principles:

  • Disabled people to have an equal right to life
  • Equal rights for disabled women and girls
  • Protection for children with disabilities
  • A right to own and inherit property, to control financial affairs and have equal access to financial services
  • Disabled people not to be deprived of their liberty “unlawfully or arbitrarily”
  • Medical or scientific experiments without consent to be banned
  • An end to enforced institutionalisation
  • Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse
  • A right to privacy and access to medical records
  • Countries to remove barriers to accessing the environment, transport, public facilities and communication
  • A right to independent living
  • Essential equipment to be made affordable
  • A right to an adequate standard of living and social protection
  • An end to discrimination relating to marriage, family and personal relationships
  • Equal access to education
  • An end to discrimination in the job market
  • A right to equal participation in public life
  • A right to participate in cultural life
  • Developing countries to be assisted to put the convention into practice

So what?
If another three states ratify, the treaty will start to come into force. None of the above should be controversial; however, there is a concern that the UK government may not want to ratify the treaty because of the right not to live in an institution.

What do we do?
The disability charity, SCOPE, are asking us all to give the government a nudge and make sure that it is ratified without exemption or qualification by the end of the year. There is a petition at the Number Ten website that reads “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in full, without reservation or limitation, by December 2008”. Please take a moment to sign it. More information is available on the SCOPE webpage.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Dave Cole blogs on davecole.org.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality

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Reader comments


Maybe the UN should stop people from molesting children under its aegis before issuing more of these Santa Claus lists of “rights” that could only ever be enacted in a specific context. That context being within sustained economic growth. Governments are not able to grant positive rights to resources without those resources being created in the first place.

“An end to discrimination relating to marriage, family and personal relationships”

And how are you going to do that anyway? Force people to marry disabled people?

Nick,

In response to your first point, getting the UK to sign up without reservation (the aim of the campaign) would represent a commitment, at least from the UK, towards the principles behind the list.

As to sustained economic growth, I don’t think Britain going into a recession would stop these rights being enactable or, indeed, enacted. Equally, many developing countries can make the changes. Most of all, these are a means to an end – attitudinal change and equality for people disabilities.

Your argument about child abuse is, I feel misplaced. It’s the same as saying that because the police sometimes get it wrong, there should be no police, or because of Harold Shipman, we should avoid doctors. I don’t deny that there are problems with the UN, but that does not (necessarily) mean we should scrap the thing.

With regard to your second point, there are, at times, restrictions on people with disabilities in those area, such as being made wards and so on, particularly for those with mental illness.

xD.

Er can someone explain why the above list should only apply to disabled people and not the whole population ?

On the child abuse front, I am quite ambivalent about the police anyway (I certainly doubt that ideally they should have powers beyond those of ordinary citizens) so it might be the best comparison. However, I think the level of abuse that the UN is responsible for (which could be stopped given proper structures and isn’t because its not a priority for them) renders it appropriate. It isn’t in a position to make policy about rights when it fails to uphold basic ones itself. If you want a parallel than Shipman, think of the Catholic church up until VERY recently demonstrating that despite its moralising rhetoric, it had little interest in making sure that its priests were held to account.

“With regard to your second point, there are, at times, restrictions on people with disabilities in those area, such as being made wards and so on, particularly for those with mental illness.”

On that front, I am aware that it is a problem but I don’t think a charter of rights actually goes all that far to solving it. For example, what level of mental disability would disqualify someone from being able to choose to engage in sexual relationships (because they lack the autonomy to consent)? There are lots of competing rights there, the right to choose versus the right not to be sexually assaulted to begin with. I imagine interpretation of those rights is likely to be highly culturally sensitive (as sex and personal relationships inevitable are) so unless the charter has an answer, and advocates enforcing a uniform policy on it all over the world, I don’t see what it can possibly do.

“getting the UK to sign up without reservation (the aim of the campaign) would represent a commitment, at least from the UK, towards the principles behind the list.”

Actually, that sounds awfully like a “target” so beloved in politics these days. I don’t think they work especially well and I think regarding rights as something akin to targets is actually more pernicious as it dilutes what a right actually is (the absolute minimum responsibility that we can judicially demand of others).

Matt,

It should apply to the whole population. The point is to highlight that disabled people are seen as somehow ‘other’ and have these rights infringed more frequently than other people.

xD.

Dave:

Purely out of curiosity, is there any actual indications that we might enter a reservation and, if so, on what?

Most of what’s there looks pretty uncontroversial unless there are issues about interpretation, i.e. whether ‘an end to enforced institutionalisation’ might cause problems with indefinite detention on grounds of criminal insanity.

Okay, so there is stuff like the ‘right to an adequate standard of living’ which can get a bit arguable in terms of what it means in real terms, although what it means in practices is what the government decides in ‘adequate’ and ‘essential equipment to be made affordable’ doesn’t specify exactly how that should be done so there’s no reason why it should necessarily require regulation.

I can’t see what there is that would require a reservation to be entered, other than that reservations are often used as a means of asserting that convention provisions are to interpreted in line with existing laws which cover the ground. If you ever look at the kind of stuff the US routinely tacks onto UN conventions most of its simply asserts that whatever the convention says will be interpreted in line with the provisions of its constitution and rulings of SCOTUS – in effect saying ‘hey, we’ve already got this covered and we’ll be sticking to our way of doing things’.

Nick:

Which bit is it that you think entails granting positive access to resources?

Sorry, but I’m buggered if I can see it unless its the bit about an ‘adequate standard of living’, which is, of course, wide open to interpretation in terms of what constitutes adequate and how you provide it, and/or the bit about social protection, in which case you appear to suggesting that we can do away with any kind of social welfare system at all, which would make you a bit of a twat.

Unity:

Obviously many nations do not currently have the resources for adequate welfare states even for their able population. To say that rights are infringed because they cannot provide even a minimal standard of care to the disabled would, in that context, be rather like saying my rights were infringed because I would not have access to the absolute latest cancer-fighting drugs on the NHS in this country.

But so far as the UK is concerned, costly requirements include:

# Equal access to education
# A right to equal participation in public life

What that implies is that if you don’t have the resources to provide a certain form of education equally to disabled people as well as able people, then no one is permitted to use it at all. Similarly with any form of participation in public life. This is the “levelling down” problem inherent in any doctrinal egalitarian policy.

I suppose an example would be good. Suppose we include attending cinemas and theatres as equal participation in public life (included under current equality legislation in this country). Suppose an old theatre doesn’t have the funds to adapt its facilities to offer seating and facilities for disabled people. If we stick to a strict egalitarian doctrine, our options are either to have the state intervene to pay for the renovation (a demand on scarce resources) or to shut the theatre down since if disabled people are unable to attend, able people can’t either. A little bit of culture (possibly some history) is lost.

By saying this, I am not saying that I do not want disabled people to participate in public life, only that couching that aspiration in terms of rights creates bad consequences in practice. That is why I would rather try to include people using non-coercive means than statutory rights.

Leaving that aside, of course we need minimum obligatory standards and protection for disabled people (not equality, just improved), but the UN is not in a position to set those standards.

Nick,

As someone with a disabled partner a lot of the rights listed above are, although uncontroversial, also basic and vital; my only concern is that if this agreement is ratified, it isn’t tied in with the current government panic about getting people off disability benefits.

And no, protection from violence and other human rights abuses can’t only occur in situations of sustained economic growth – that’s a cheap and tacky cop-out.

Also –
‘I suppose an example would be good. Suppose we include attending cinemas and theatres as equal participation in public life (included under current equality legislation in this country). Suppose an old theatre doesn’t have the funds to adapt its facilities to offer seating and facilities for disabled people. If we stick to a strict egalitarian doctrine, our options are either to have the state intervene to pay for the renovation (a demand on scarce resources) or to shut the theatre down since if disabled people are unable to attend, able people can’t either. A little bit of culture (possibly some history) is lost.’

HUGE straw man there, of the type Christopher Lee might dance around. Just because disabled people deserve rights to public amenities, that doesn’t mean that others should be forbidden from amenities without such provision. That’s a classic logical fallacy, borne out by the fact that shutting down or demolishing a theatre would be far more costly than just putting in a ramp or two. It really isn’t all that hard to provide basic facilities for the disabled.

Unity @ 8 – well, Scope seem to think so 🙂

Unfortunately, there are indications, particularly around mental health issues with compulsory treatment outside hospitals and so on.

Nick,

Some of your specific points have already been rebutted by Unity and Pennyred, but there is a more general point I’d like to address. It ultimately comes down to a social against a medical model of disability. Many of the points are as much about saying that a person with a disability is still a person and that they can, if barriers are removed, live a full life.

xD.

“HUGE straw man there, of the type Christopher Lee might dance around. Just because disabled people deserve rights to public amenities, that doesn’t mean that others should be forbidden from amenities without such provision.”

I don’t dispute that. What I am saying is that demanding EQUALITY of provision would demand that public amenities that are unavailable to the disabled be shut down. That is what equality means, no one better nor worse. If what you want is better provision for disabled people, then that I can agree with (although I would prefer that provision be delivered via social, market and freely chosen means rather than statutory dictats).

“It ultimately comes down to a social against a medical model of disability. Many of the points are as much about saying that a person with a disability is still a person and that they can, if barriers are removed, live a full life.”

Well I think you need some sort of model of disability or else you aren’t going to be able to address the problem at all – it is an issue of physiology which exists, to an extent, pre-socially whatever words you use to describe it. In other words, a social model can explain a lot but cannot reduce the whole issue. The advantage of a medical model is that it might in time drive technology to overcome disability (by giving blind people sight, or people with mobility issues the ability to walk). If you decide, in contrast, to choose an identity model to (someone disability is part of the essence of someone) to fill the gap left by the social model, you are basically choosing someone’s essence for them and not giving them the choice to change (or even the option of desiring change). So I think there is room for both models.

Nick,

I think you have misunderstood what is meant by the medical and social models of disability. If we take, for instance, someone who uses a wheelchair as an example, the medical model would say that their inability to walk unaided is the problem where the social model would say (for instance) that it’s the lack of ramps that causes the disability, and so on mutatis mutandis. It is not simply an issue of physiology, but the manner in which society as a whole defines a ‘normal’ set and, one way and another, excludes those who fall outside that set, whether deliberately or not.

There is categorically not room for both models, as they are mutually exclusive and site the problem in different places. The drive to technological improvement is present in both cases, as there is still a drive to improve conditions for people, for oneself and to make profit.

The point of the Convention is to address perceptions, as much as anything else, about disabled people. Remember that in many places the mentally ill are weak or possessed, wheelchair users are cripples and illness generally is a punishment from on high for sins.

I think I get it. I am saying the social model tries to deny objective reality and in an unhelpful way too. If you managed to impose the model on society using a centrally devised linguistic and legal framework, you would not actually remove the problem of people being unable to walk unaided. But you would make some solutions to the problem literally inconceivable because you would deny that a problem lies with their actual disability (something which might be medically treatable in the future). You would deny disabled people the framework by which to call themselves disabled (any disability would be associated with the world around them rather than with their bodies). Because that is not how objective reality presents itself (a medical problem interacting with a social environment), you will not be able to use such a framework to seek the most effective solution.

Nick,

It doesn’t try to deny any objective reality at all. What it does is identify the locus of the problem. Being unable to walk unaided does not per se cause the problem; society’s reaction to you does.

I’m not denying for a minute – nor would anyone else – that the problem is around what causes the disability and that by removing all disabilities you would remove the problem. I am saying that it’s not going to happen any time soon and so you have to address the issues as they are.

Great post Dave. Can’t believe I missed it! I’m off to sign the petition 🙂


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