International Development Law Organization

Disability is not just for the Paralympics

3 Dec 2013

A missing limb. A missing access ramp. A missing understanding that disability isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a handicap when it comes to rights and citizenship.

As World Disability Day is celebrated today (December 3rd), IDLO is stepping up efforts to place disability at the heart of the post-2015 agenda. The legal instrument is there, in the form of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), which came into force in 2008. But although it’s been widely embraced, the Convention has yet to displace the notion that disability is a fairly low priority, something to worry about once we’ve sorted everything else. “More than 130 countries have ratified the Convention,” says Elisa Slattery, a legal expert with a human rights background, who now provides much of IDLO’s thinking on the topic. “This is a certainly a good number. And some countries have done a good job of devising policies to go with it. But in many places, the policies or legislation have not been updated to reflect the new standards – or simply do not exist. Terrible violations continue.”

Charity recipients at best, social pariahs at worst: these are the damaging perceptions that the Convention set out to break. The document recognizes PWDs as rights-holders, with decision-making power. Dignity and autonomy are the underlying principles. “The Convention is clear that PWDs are legal actors; that they should be assisted in making decisions if they need to be, but that the decisions are theirs to make,” Ms. Slattery stresses. “Legal capacity is a huge issue. And the fact is that people who have some sort of cognitive disability in particular, or disabilities associated with mental illness, are often stripped of this capacity.” So how do we go about reversing this? How do we ensure that all the right noises made by governments actually stop PWDs from being outcast, abused, infantilized, forcibly sterilized or kept off the bus? How do we move, in other words, from paying lip service to providing services?

“Institutionalization, abuse, and the denial of legal capacity go hand in hand. When you’re institutionalized or put in some kind of quasi-institutional facility, you are that much more likely to be tied to your bed or chained to a tree. We must figure out ways – and this needs a very strong push – to allow people to stay within their communities. An inclusion model is needed, as opposed to an exclusion one.” In a statement at the United Nations last September, IDLO spoke of creating a “disability-inclusive sustainable development path, where people with disabilities are treated equally, and benefit equally from development outcomes.” The organization is now working out how to incorporate this approach into its programs: its largest operations are in Afghanistan and South Sudan, both countries where disability is a big legacy of conflict. The legal profession, it is felt, can help a great deal.

Naturally enough given its record, IDLO is a strong believer in building capacity: training lawyers to understand the needs of disabled clients, to represent them fairly, and ultimately to chip away at disability’s enduring stigma. The strategy mirrors the one deployed for people living with HIV, in the Middle East and elsewhere. “Legal services should be scaled up. We lawyers must understand that people might need court documents in Braille, for example. But we must also look at ourselves and confront our own prejudices,” Ms. Slattery explains. “We must ask ourselves what’s keeping us from providing services to people whose abilities may differ from ours – and work to eliminate it.”

One benefit of the Convention is that donors are increasingly likely to “mainstream” disability, much as they have done with gender. This involves taking disability specifically into account when funding development projects. Frequently, in fact, these two categories – gender and disability – coincide, so that being a woman AND disabled creates a Gordian knot of discrimination and abuse. “The incidence of sexual violence, particularly for women and girls with cognitive disabilities, is extremely high. This is compounded by the difficulty of reporting abuse for women who may not have freedom of movement. And even if you manage to file a complaint, you may then come up against an unresponsive legal system...” For each Paralympic athlete covered in gold, many more people with disabilities continue to struggle with exclusion and abuse. If equality is to advance, it seems productive to tackle the inherent misconceptions and unpreparedness of legal systems, and use these systems as catalysts for societal transformation. As IDLO sees it, access ramps badly need installing – to courthouses and other facilities, certainly, but also to our collective consciousness.