| The UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been in the political spotlight recently as the United States Senate convened hearings two weeks ago in preparation for a vote of whether or not to ratify the treaty. So far, 138 countries have signed and ratified the treaty. Secretary of State Kerry rightly observed that the failure of the US to join the convention has caused it to miss out on a chance to take leadership on the international disability rights issue.
Policies are important. The history of disability rights in the United States shows that having laws that protect the human rights of persons with disabilities are essential. The passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were landmark events that opened doors and changed the lives of millions of people with disabilities. However, on an international scale, treaties such as the CRPD carry weight not because of the legal protection they provide, but because they are a statement of our values.
The truth is that in many developing countries there are few options for legal recourse available to persons with disabilities who find that their rights have been denied. It is often the case that legal and judicial systems are not as developed as in the United State and Europe. Working in China last year, a country that has both signed the CRPD and had its own disability laws on the books for decades, I constantly met with families whose children had been denied access to school because of their disability. If I were in the US, I would have told them to go due process with the school district. However, as has been documented by Human Rights Watch, this type of legal action is difficult in China and even if it is taken the courts usually fail to uphold the rights of the individual.
Systematic legal differences aside, the truth is that even if countries wish to provide the programs and services that would bring them into compliance with the CRPD, it is difficult at best in many of them. This is the point at which human rights and international development collide. It takes more than lawyers to make schools inclusive of children with disabilities. It takes training human resources, such as special education teachers and physical/occupational/speech therapists. It takes architects and construction workers to figure out how to make facilities accessible in areas with very little infrastructure. It takes healthcare and pharmaceuticals such as anti-seizure medication that are available in generic form and at a price that families can afford. It takes a growing economy to provide jobs and supported employment opportunities. And behind everything, it takes money to fund programs and services.
This is very much what I see working at Building a Caring Community in Tanzania this year. Tanzania has also signed and ratified the CRPD, though the process of fulfilling the promise of the law is a work in progress. But everyday we are continuing to build an ecosystem of disability services from the ground up and secure a better future for
children with disabilities and their families here. For example, in addition to our day-centers, we are currently working with Moshi Municipal Council on designing an inclusive education pilot project. All of our activities try to enable children with intellectual/developmental disabilities to reach their full potential and live happy and healthy lives as fully participating members of the community.
Too often when we hear “human rights” we think of top-down measures like UN declarations. However, though the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the signing of these international treaties is powerful in that it demonstrates a shared commitment to certain ideals, we cannot then become complacent and consider the problem solved. The underlying causes of human rights violation are often problems of development. Changing the status quo to one of inclusion of persons with disabilities worldwide will take more than a call to your senator supporting ratification of the CRPD. Advocacy is a place to start, but the international disability community needs to extend this call to action to support bottom up development solutions for a sustainable and inclusive future for all.