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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality


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Online discussion
NGO Participation
Working Group : Compilation of Elements

Inclusion International

Robert Martin, New Zealand
Klaus Lachwitz, Germany


Some Reflections regarding the Preparation of a Comprehensive and Integral Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities

30 December 2003

1. Contents and Scope of an UN-Disability Convention

Our first question is: Do we aim at a comprehensive collection of human rights and entitlements that is to say: a summary of rights which are already part of the main legally binding human rights instruments adopted by the United Nations General Assembly since 1948?

Or do we want something special, even something new, if we fight for an UN-Disability Convention?

We are pretty sure that we should claim something creative, something which opens the doors for the benefit for all disabled persons irrespective of the kind of their disability, something which convinces people and governments everywhere to accept an additional Convention besides the already existing human rights treaties.

2. Our Vision

If so, we need a vision, a perspective on which all of us can unanimously agree upon.

What could be such a vision?

We have to discuss that together. We, Robert and I can just speak about our vision:

It is the strong desire that persons who are labelled as being impaired, retarded, disabled, handicapped etc. are accepted as full citizens of their countries with equal rights and opportunities and that an UN Disability Convention should help to eliminate all forms of abuse and discrimination globally.

Even if countries guarantee the right to equality and civil and political rights in their constitutions, full citizenship can be reached only, if disabled persons are not disadvantaged and discriminated against in comparison with the so called non-disabled members of society.

We, therefore, must analyze and name the main reasons, why disabled persons have faced disadvantages, discrimination, abuse and degrading treatment.

3. Fight against Poverty

From an international perspective, which includes all countries, one of the worst experiences of disabled people is poverty and with it the impression to be worthless and considered as a burden for the other members of our societies.

Disability and poverty are twins in many parts of the world. In particular in developing countries persons with severe handicaps and their families belong to the poorest of the poor.

The fight for an UN Disability Convention will succeed only,

- if poverty can be reduced in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals
- if the basic needs of disabled persons are met.

The relationship between disability and poverty, therefore, should be one of the subjects of the Convention.

4. Right to Communicate

Persons with intellectual disability can participate in the development of rights only, if they are entitled to communicate with others. Communication includes the exchange of accessible information in an easy to understand and easy to read language.

5. Universal/Inclusion Design

The main reasons for discrimination are barriers in our societies which prevent disabled persons from executing their rights in real life. Barriers exist in different forms. Again it must be stressed that in many developing countries poverty is the main barrier to be included into society without disadvantages. For many physically handicapped persons in Africa, for instance, a wheelchair is still a dream. In some of the so called industrialized countries wheelchairs may be provided in sufficient numbers but they cannot be used everywhere as town-planning, housing, technical norms etc. do not consider the special needs of wheelchair users.

The right to barrier-free living conditions, therefore, should be included in the Convention.

6. Right to be different

Barriers do not only exist as visible obstacles but also in the minds of people.

Many disabled persons are socially excluded because the non-disabled majority of people living in our societies are not accustomed to living alongside disabled people and to accept them as equal social partners.

Prejudices still dominate the way of thinking and the behaviour of many people. We have to teach them that diversity of people is an enrichment of our societies and we should use the Convention debate to claim the right of disabled people to be different in a society for all.

7. The Fight against the Bioethical Dimension of Discrimination

As far as the general part of the Convention is concerned we should deal with the bioethical approach which tries to justify the selection of disabled embryos, the late abortion of a foetus which is impaired or bears an incurable disease, the early euthanasia of new born babies etc.

Medical researches raise hopes and an increasing number of people in our countries believe in the creation of “designer-babies”, the availability of new organs developed from stem cells and in a prolongation of life.

Aiming at a perfect body by making use of gene-therapies, stem cell researches etc. not only contrasts with the life of a profoundly disabled person, but results in the horrifying question, how to differ between persons who are entitled to live and other human beings not worth living.

A UN Disability Convention cannot escape from the ethical discussions which try to legalize new biomedical experiments and researches.

We, therefore, must fight for our acceptance against all methods and attempts to exclude us from society by not allowing babies who are disabled like us to be born or by forbidding us to reproduce.

8. Some particular Problems regarding Persons with Intellectual Disability

Let us finish up with the remark that disabled people are different. We should not try to ignore that we have different needs and, therefore, sometimes fight for different rights and entitlements.

As said before, we share many problems with other disabled people and we fight for common aims. But we must be aware that people with intellectual disability and special needs might differ in the judgement whether a human right or an entitlement should be enlisted in an UN Disability Convention or not.

As far as persons with intellectual disabilities are concerned we expect that the Convention debate will, at least, deal with two problems:
  1. The Fight against Segregation and Institutionalization
    In many (Western) countries persons who are labelled as being mentally retarded or mentally ill are segregated from society and incarcerated in big institutions with no or very limited rights to privacy.

    It is high time to fight against these deeply inhuman practices and to use the process to develop an UN Disability Convention to denounce governments which still tolerate the exclusion and incarceration of intellectual disabled persons.
  2. The Fight against Paternalistic Guardianship Laws
Everybody has the right to self-determination and autonomy. Some persons with intellectual disability need support and assistance, when they want to execute their rights. Some adults are required to get legal representation by parents, guardians etc. if they want to sign a contract.

But in our view it is not necessary any longer to place persons under guardianship by labelling them as being totally incapacitated and by denying some or all of their rights.

The Convention should try to set the course for new guardianship laws which replace the classical guardian by an (legal) assistant who acts on behalf of the intellectually disabled person and who tries to find out his/her desires to strengthen his/her fight to develop his/her personality.

9. Inclusive Rights

Persons with intellectual disability want to be included in society. Inclusion is one of the key elements for our fight for an UN-Disability convention. Inclusive Rights, therefore, should be discussed, enlisted and formulated. Example: The Right to Inclusive Education.

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