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Unprecedented Recognition for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

by Myra Kovary

We are living in a new era for persons with disabilities. One sign of this occurred in the last week of February when the first session of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gathered in Geneva. The Committee is charged with monitoring implementation of the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century - the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or CRPD, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 13, 2006. On February 24, 2009, Germany became the 50th nationto ratify the convention.

The Convention is a revolutionary document in several ways.

Its purpose is to protect, promote and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities and to eliminate barriers that hinder persons with disabilities from fully participating in society. The general principles of the Convention include respect for dignity, autonomy, the freedom to make one’s own choices, independence, non-discrimination and full participation and inclusion in society.

The Convention is based on a social model of disability rather than a medical model. It’s not about eliminating disabilities, but changing attitudes and recognizing human rights, a crucial paradigm shift.

Under the CRPD, States Parties (governments) are required to provide full accessibility to the physical environment, information and communication technologies as well as to all services open to the public by the elimination of barriers and giving full recognition to the use of Braille and sign languages. It recognizes that all persons with disabilities enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others.

In addition, the CRPD ensures that persons with disabilities enjoy the right to liberty; freedom from torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse, and respect for physical and mental integrity. Persons with disabilities also have the right to live independently; to retain fertility, marry and establish families; to inclusive education, quality health care, habilitation and rehabilitation; to opportunities for employment with reasonable accommodation, and to vote and run for elected office.

Several organizations played an unprecedented role in the treaty negotiations. The International Disability Caucus, which used the motto “Nothing About Us Without Us," emerged as a coalition of over 70 international disability rights organizations, including the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, the World Blind Union, the World Federation for the Deaf and the Landmine Survivors Network. Speaking with one voice, the Caucus took an active role in drafting the Convention and in lobbying governmental delegates. For five years, hundreds of seasoned activists from all around the world – people in wheelchairs, with seeing-eye dogs, communicating in sign languages, with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities – attended sessions of the committee charged with drafting the Convention.

One of the most significant aspects of the Convention for persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities lay in the recognition of legal capacity and that persons with disabilities are entitled to access to support to exercise their legal capacity. Activists won on this point with the expert leadership of Tina Minkowitz, co-chair of the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry and a team from MindFreedom International on which I participated, as did Celia Brown and Kate Millett. Legal capacity, along with other provisions on physical and mental integrity, healthcare, autonomy and non-discrimination, establish a framework for ending forced mental health treatment and repressive guardianship laws.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was formally opened for signing on March 30, 2007, and within 13 months it was ratified by 20 countries, a moment marked by a celebration of the Entry Into Force at the United Nations on May 12, 2008. The U.S. has yet to sign the Convention, but as a candidate, President Barack Obama promised to sign and ratify the new treaty..

There is still a great deal of work to do in full implementation of the Convention, as well. Activists are building strong cross-disability alliances. Now it is the joint obligation of the States and civil society, including human rights and disability rights activists, to turn the revolutionary promise and paradigm shift of this Convention into a reality for persons with disabilities -- more than 600 million persons worldwide.
March 2, 2009

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Myra Kovary is a UN Representative of MindFreedom International, the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, and a founding member of the Ithaca Mental Patients Advocacy Coalition. She played the harp for the celebration of the Entry Into Force of The Convention on May 12, 2008 in the General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York City.

See see MILK and Recruiting for Rights by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Healthcare 'Reform' is Not Enough by Susan Yanow in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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