11 September 2012

Africa: UN Meeting to Focus On Rights of Disabled Persons

Washington — More than 120 nations worldwide have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), committing their governments to work toward providing this population with the assistance, access and opportunity that is available to citizens at large. How to turn those intentions into reality will be the focus of a New York meeting September 12-14 as member nations gather in an annual conference.

More than 1 billion people worldwide live with some form of disability, about 15 percent of the population, according to a joint report from the World Health Organization and the World Bank. Of those, 110 million to 190 million people have great difficulty functioning in everyday activities.

The Disabilities Convention came into force in 2008, rooted in the principles of nondiscrimination, equality and inclusiveness for persons with disabilities and affirming that they should have the same opportunities as others. Overcoming actual physical and attitudinal barriers that limit disabled persons' equal opportunities takes time, effort, legislation and enforcement.

"What we're looking at is expanding the knowledge and capacity of civil society and governments to be able to move forward in breaking down those barriers," said Judith Heumann, the U.S. State Department's special adviser on international disability rights and the leader of the U.S. delegation to the conference.

The United States has been working steadily for nearly 40 years to open doors and remove physical and attitudinal barriers that deny access and opportunity for persons with disabilities. Although the United States signed the treaty in 2009, Senate approval, as required by law, has not yet come to a vote. Even short of full adoption of the agreement, Heumann said, the U.S. experience in serving this disadvantaged population can be helpful to other countries still working to put appropriate laws and policies in place.

"The United States is working with many different countries for creating and supporting opportunities that civil society and governments are doing to advance the implementation of the CRPD," Heumann said. Members of the U.S. delegation will be following through on these goals in a number of bilateral meetings and panel discussions set for the session in New York.

Heumann said the United States worked with representatives of various states in the African Union earlier this year to develop a Continental Plan of Action, which is intended to guide the region in fulfilling the commitments of the CRPD.

Full implementation of every treaty provision in every nation will take years, if not decades, she said. But nations need to begin by laying the groundwork.

"What is expected is the development of meaningful legislation [and] budgeting to take into consideration disability in a whole host of areas," Heumann said. "The right for disabled people to go to school, to experience lifelong learning, to participate in employment, elections, etc."

Heumann was stricken with polio as a child and became disabled, unable to walk. She uses a wheelchair and brings that special perspective to her work as the State Department adviser on this issue.

Many of the accommodations that a society should make for persons with disabilities are obvious -- wide doors, for example, and elevators and ramps allowing passage to wheelchairs -- but other government actions to ensure equal rights to persons with disabilities are more complex.

"In the area of elections, what we're looking at is selecting sites where disabled people can vote," Heumann explained, and "allowing a blind person to bring [a companion] into a voting booth," to assist and ensure the vote is cast as the individual intends.

In a U.S.-hosted panel discussion, members of the U.S. delegation from the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will give presentations about the U.S. experience with protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

The conference of the parties to the treaty will also place particular emphasis on how to help women and children with disabilities overcome the obstacles and prejudices that may limit their opportunities. Heumann said, for instance, that children with disabilities are barred from schools in some places where the civil rights of this group are not yet fully accepted.

The WHO-World Bank study on disability found in a global survey that disability disproportionately affects already marginalized populations, such as women and the poor. Persons with disabilities are more likely to receive little education and economic opportunity, and thus are more vulnerable to poverty and less likely to receive adequate health care.

Though the United States has not ratified the treaty, the process leading to that vote is under way. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has endorsed U.S. ratification of the treaty and sent the matter forward for a vote.

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