Emerging from the Margins: A Case for Disability Rights Activism
June 27 is a day of recognition for one of the world’s most famous civil rights leaders and the many movements she helped to build. A leader about whom numerous books have been written and whose autobiography was the inspiration for a Tony Award winning play and an Academy Award winning movie. Her name was Helen Keller, a DeafBlind woman born in the southern United States in 1880.
Many schoolchildren have read the Story of My Life or taken a field trip to see a production of The Miracle Worker. Helen’s greatest life achievement was not that she learned to speak and read but that she learned the power of speaking out. Not only did she champion the rights of people with disabilities, Ms. Keller was a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and birth control. She helped establish the American Civil Liberties Union and traveled to more than forty countries. More than a hundred and thirty years have passed since her birth, yet the Deafblind community remains the world’s most marginalized community even within the disability rights movement.
In 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter declared that Helen Keller’s date of birth, June 27, be federally recognized as Helen Keller Day. Globally, Helen Keller Day has evolved to become a week of DeafBlind Awareness. This week not only celebrates what individuals around the world have accomplished but addresses the barriers that face persons with deafblindness from being equal members of society.
According to the late Lex Grandia, former Secretary-General of the World Federation of the Deafblind, “lack of education has made it impossible for persons with deafblindness to formulate their rights and needs to participate in society. Most activities with or for persons with deafblindness were related to entertainment, not intended to get deafblind people politically involved.”
Since the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) went into force, more and more people with disabilities are being elected to office. Presently, there are between 13 to 15 Deaf individuals worldwide who currently serve in a political office (none in the United States). This year, two Deaf individuals were elected to the European Parliament: Dr. Adam Kosa of Hungary and Helga Stevens of Belgium. There are also a growing number of individuals who are blind or low-vision serving in office. I recently sat down with Senator Kerryann Ifill of Barbados, who is the first female President of the Senate and happens to be visually impaired. Senator Ifill and I discussed the challenges facing the Deaf community and especially those facing the Deafblind. We discussed the importance of building capacity of the Deaf, Blind, and Deafblind communities and to provide them with opportunities to become advocates. Given the small numbers within each of these communities, building partnerships is also essential to raise awareness of their rights.
Earlier this month, I attended the seventh session of the United Nations Conference of State Parties on the CRPD as a representative of the Disability Rights Fund. This was my first time attending, and I found the session to be inspiring and empowering. People with disabilities spoke on the importance of implementing the CRPD, equal recognition before the law, inclusive education, and breaking down negative stereotypes. There were over a thousand people from around the world in attendance, a rich tapestry of cultural and disability diversity. I was humbled by the level of expertise I encountered and was eager to share the work of the Disability Rights Fund’s advocacy strategies, especially regarding marginalized populations such as little persons, albinism, psychosocial disabilities and the Deafblind.
As an individual who is Deafblind (Ushers), I had hoped to meet representatives who were also Deafblind or had some degree of hearing and visual challenges so that we could share our personal challenges and also best practices on how best to support inclusion of the marginalized. From the thousand, I met only one. The disability rights movement has made tremendous strides in getting disability addressed in development agendas yet continues to exclude the Deafblind from these efforts.
There is still much work that needs to be done to ensure that those who are Deafblind are given the opportunity to be included at the local, national and international levels. One can address this through ensuring access to inclusive education and leadership opportunities for youths. Addressing inclusion is essential for Europe and the United States to note especially as the world becomes smaller and more global partnerships form to address the economy, employment, healthcare, poverty, education, climate change and conflict. In the Story of My Life, Helen says, “alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
Kerry Thompson, Program Associate, Disability Rights Fund, is a Fall 2014 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.