Questions from a group of deaf and hard of hearing students from The Secondary School for Dental Technicians in Beroun, Czech Republic, were answered recently by Professor Philip Alston, Chairman of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Q. Which articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also contain rights of disabled persons (persons with special needs)?
A. In fact, there is no specific reference to disabled persons in the Universal Declaration. There are various reasons for this. First of all there was much less awareness of the needs of disabled persons in the late 1940s than there is today. Secondly it was assumed that the provisions of the Declaration apply to all persons, including those with disabilities as well as those without. Thirdly the Universal Declaration is necessarily very short and therefore tends only to state very general principles which must be developed in more detail elsewhere as they relate to the rights of particular groups of persons.
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration the United Nations has paid considerable attention to the rights of disabled persons. Probably the most important statement which it has adopted in this respect is the Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. These rules were adopted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993. They are not binding upon governments in a formal legal sense but they do spell out the principles which the international community believes should be followed in seeking to ensure the realisation of the human rights of disabled persons.
Q. So are there any articles which are related to rights of deaf people?
A. All of the provisions of the Universal Declaration are applicable to deaf persons and we must therefore look at each of the provisions and see how they should apply in view of the particular needs and circumstances of deaf people. To give an example, the right to equality and the right to non-discrimination imply a wide range of measures which would need to be taken in order to ensure that deaf people have equal opportunities to live a happy and productive life. In addition, any measures which discriminate against them just because they are deaf should be eliminated both by law and in the practice within the State itself. Another example concerns the right to education, which is a right which belongs to every deaf person but which can clearly not be satisfied in the same way as the right to education of a hearing person. Therefore if a government is going to satisfy its obligation to provide appropriate educational opportunities for deaf children they must take special measures to enable those children to benefit from education.
Q. At present we have a battle over sign language law in our country. Is there also an article [in the UDHR] about language?
A. The Universal Declaration does not say anything specific about language rights. The only provision that mentions language is Article 2 which prohibits discrimination ("distinction") "of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language" etc. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is a treaty to which the Czech Republic is a party, contains a provision in Article 27 which guarantees that linguistic and other minorities "shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to ... use their own language". Deaf and other disabled people do not, however, qualify for minority status for the purposes of this provision.
Of much more importance in your case are the relevant rules contained in the 1993 Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. Rule 5 deals with access to information and communication and paragraph 6 of that Rule provides that:
States should develop strategies to make information services and documentation accessible for different groups of persons with disabilities. Braille, tape services, large print and other appropriate technologies should be used to provide access to written information and documentation for persons with visual impairments. Similarly, appropriate technologies should be used to provide access to spoken information for persons with auditory impairments or comprehension difficulties.
Then paragraph 7 of the same Rule states that: