Will Disability Rights Exit the Global Dialogue?
As voters in Austria and Italy casted their votes this week, people with disabilities were celebrating International Day of Persons with Disabilities. While the world watched the outcome of these votes, I recalled a vote that took place on December 6, 2012. On this day, the U.S. Senate failed to pass the measure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). A mere five votes kept the measure from reaching the two-thirds majority required to pass, and this happened during a time when the Democrats held the majority of the Senate seats.
Bookended between the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and Human Rights Day on December 10, this week is a reminder of how political outcomes can determine the course of the global disability rights movement. This year in politics has been one of the most divisive times in our history — both in Europe and the United States. But what does that mean for people with disabilities on both sides of the Atlantic?
Let’s go back to 2012 and see what U.S. ratification of the UN CRPD would have meant. The UN CRPD is the international framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act so the proposal of disability rights was not a radical new concept but meant to enhance existing rights. Ratifying the UN CRPD would have meant that the United States could have been part of the global dialogue on disability rights; we could share our technical expertise and be part of a movement to change one billion lives. The UN CRPD ratification vote had bipartisan support from leaders like Sen. John McCain (R), Sen. Bob Dole (R), Sen. Tom Harkin (D), and then Sen. John Kerry (D). It also had the support of numerous veterans and disability organizations. So why did it fail to pass? The measure failed largely in part due to misinformation and scare tactics, especially in regard to being held accountable on a global level. Fast forward to 2016 as we witnessed once again how misinformation and scare tactics can influence political outcomes.
Much has been said about the impact of Brexit on the global economy, trade relations, the refugee crisis, and relations within the European Union (EU), but very little was noted about the impact that Brexit would have on the disability community in both the U.K. and EU. The restriction on freedom of movement and the economic crisis will lower already low employment numbers for people with disabilities. Another concern for Europeans with disabilities is the limited opportunities to work together. The number of Europeans with disabilities is around 80 million and the number of those with disabilities in the U.K. is around 11 million according to the U.K. Development for International Development (DFID). The World Health Organization estimates that people with disabilities make up 10 percent of the global population, making it the world’s largest minority. As people with disabilities face marginalization and widespread discrimination within and across borders, raising their voices together has empowered them in their work for social justice and inclusion.
Brexit has created a ripple effect through the European Union as countries contemplate staying or exiting. The exit controversy parallels with the closing space for civil society. Working in international development, I have watched with growing alarm the closing of space for civil society in Africa and Asia as governments are cracking down on efforts to engage in open dialogue and collaboration to advance human rights for its citizens. Now more than ever it is crucial that disability rights do not exit the global dialogue. We tend to think too broadly about what dialogue means. Dialogue is more than sitting around a table or speaking from a podium. Dialogue begins with community and it starts with each of us.
Kerry Thompson, a 2014 Marshall Memorial Fellow, works for Disability Rights Fund, an international grantmaker working to advance the UN CRPD in the developing world. She is also the Founding Director for Silent Rhythms – a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing dance opportunities for people with disabilities and promoting inclusion between the disability and non-disability communities. Follow her on Twitter at @KerrySpeaksUp.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.