< Viewpoints < 2006


“People with disabilities have the right to be fully-fledged members of society”

[07/08/06] A new human rights treaty may be agreed later this month. A committee within the United Nations is meeting to finalise a Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. Such a document is badly needed.

Of course, all agreed human rights norms already apply to people with disabilities, including the provisions against all forms of discrimination. Several treaties such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Revised European Social Charter go further and specifically mention the need for positive measures to facilitate an active participation of disabled persons in the community.

The new UN convention will serve the purpose of bringing together all these standards in one comprehensive document. This will also support the 10-year action plan that the Council of Europe recently adopted to promote the rights and full participation of people with disabilities in society.

There is an urgent need to stop discrimination against the disabled. The simple principle that society must adjust to the needs of all people is just not respected in reality and Europe is no exception. City planners have still not taken into account the interests of persons in wheelchairs in many places. People have even been prevented from voting because there was no ramp to the polling booths!

Deaf and blind people are often excluded because the state does not provide support to simple aid technology. Schools in several European countries are not ready to meaningfully accommodate children with disabilities. Efforts for inclusive education have been half-hearted, if not totally absent.

So-called special schools are sometimes of a lower quality and do not provide the necessary skills for the open labour market. Job opportunities are also limited due to discriminatory practices and physical barriers in the workplace, on public transport or at home.

The treatment of mentally disabled persons is, sadly, scandalous in some countries. Many of them are kept in institutions that are no better than bad prisons. Staff in these places have low status, are badly paid and have no resources to support genuine rehabilitation.

I have received reports from credible non-governmental organisations – including the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre in Budapest – that so-called cage beds still are used in psychiatric hospitals in some European countries. Such forms of malpractice must stop.

Charity is not enough. What is needed is a solid recognition that persons with disabilities have human rights. This requires a combined approach: both support for the individual and changes within society as a whole.

• We need to provide for healthcare, rehabilitation and the necessary aids and equipment to support the individual to live as independently as possible in his or her society.

• At the same time we must work towards a society which is accessible for all. This is a society where persons with disabilities have equal access to education, employment, legal and social protection and where everyone has equal opportunities to participate in the life of the community.

The way forward will require political will and systematic work. The existing situation should be evaluated, areas of progress identified, and determined measures taken to address the problems. Follow-up and evaluation are crucial if the work is to be effective and is to meet the new challenges.

Of great importance is the involvement of the persons themselves, both at the individual level and through their organisations. Respect for differences, individual autonomy, freedom of choice, participation and inclusion should be the guiding principles of these efforts.

European governments which believe that all persons are equal in dignity and rights ought to give priority to this issue and prepare effective measures. This would also make them prepared for the new International Convention and the Council of Europe action plan.

Thomas Hammarberg


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