An important seminar on disability rights courses in Law Schools in southern Africa Law Schools took place in mid-February. Hosted by the Midland State University in the Zimbabwean town of Gweru, the two-day meeting brought together participants from the four universities in the region that offer disability rights courses to their LLB students to reflect on progress in recent years and the challenges they still face.
Representattives from Midland State University, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, Chancellor College at the University of Malawi and the University of Pretoria's Centre for Human Rights exchanged views on disability law and teaching methods during the seminar, which is seen as the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between these institutions and well as civil society organisations working on disability rights to strengthen the field in the region.
The participants also discussed further a common curriculum that is planned for 2013.
The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) - in partnership with the Open Society Foundations (OS) Human Rights Initiative Disability Rights Programme and the OSF Higher Education Support Program - is currently supporting the law faculties at the four universities. The institutions also played a key role in funding in-depth research into the status of disability rights in the region and in specific countries as well as supporting the establishment of disability rights courses at Midland State, Eduardo Mondlane and Chancellor College.
Plans are underway to develop similar courses in 2013 at the University of Zambia and Dodoma University in Tanzania - the latter in partnership with the Open Society initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA).
Training law students on disability rights is just one way of tackling the marginalisation and exclusion of people with disabilities in southern Africa. The awful reality is that people with disabilities experience marginalization in all walks of life - exclusion through institutionalization; isolation due to inadequate services and supports as well as structural, communicational, and attitudinal barriers; exclusion from public places, public services, mainstream education, the labour force and political life; denial of legal personhood with resulting restrictions on a person's ability to make his/her own decisions and access justice.
Competing priorities in developing countries mean that disability is often side-lined.
Along with supporting these four disability rights courses, the Open Society Foundation's work on disability focuses on challenging practices that impact on the most marginalised groups within the disability community. These include challenging the denial of legal personhood; ending segregation that occurs as a result of institutionalisation, lack of community-based support, or separate special education systems; and ensuring access to justice that enables equal participation for people with disabilities, who are victims of crime or who are defendants caught up in the criminal justice system.