Jan 272005
Authors: Meg Burd

A special committee has been called at the United Nations this week to discuss the protection of rights of a group of people who are often overlooked. While often marginalized and sadly forgotten in the larger discussions of human rights, the more than 600 million people with disabilities worldwide must no longer find their basic rights pushed to the side or ignored any more.

"We must attend to the needs of a segment of the world population which, in spite of disability, gives us a lesson for living and overcoming adversities," Ambassador Luis Gallegos Chiriboga of Ecuador told the U.N. at a recent session, and he is right.

For those of us challenging countries around the world and here at home to ensure basic human rights, we must no longer neglect or forget persons with disabilities in our call for proper treatment and dignity for all people.

Worldwide, persons with disabilities of all sorts face not only a variety of everyday challenges, but also the horrific challenge of living in places in which their basic human rights are often not protected or else blatantly violated by laws and practices.

Indeed, looking around the world (and even here at home) at some of the atrocious and discriminatory laws proves why a stronger emphasis on ensuring the rights for the disabled is needed so desperately.

The National Council on Disability, in a paper published for a conference in 2002, reported a variety of scenarios in which discrimination against persons with disabilities was systemic and legalized. In Thailand, for instance, the Council notes that the Constitutional Court banned people with disabilities from becoming judicial officials. In Honduras, laws prevent persons with disabilities from teaching. In Germany, after a court awarded money to complainants who said sharing a hotel with disabled guests ruined their holiday, hotels are now leery to book disabled travelers.

Amnesty International reported last year that in Albania, a Family Code amendment was passed that barred marriage rights to people with certain mental or physical disabilities. Under this law, people suffering from schizophrenia, manic-depression (bipolar disorder), or congenital blood diseases (amongst other things) are not allowed to marry. This law even extends to people suffering from HIV/AIDS. In order to marry, says Amnesty International, medical certificates proving that potential spouses do not suffer from any of the particular disabilities must be presented. In many places, voting rights are denied to persons with disabilities, as are employment rights.

Beside denial of rights such as these, in many places persons with disabilities are declared incompetent to take care of themselves by the law and shuttled off to inadequate and often inhumane facilities to "keep them out of the way."

In Bulgaria, for instance, Irene Khan of Amnesty International found just such a situation, in which residents were little more than prisoners, held in long, dank corridors with little care. The rooms of disabled children were locked down, and they weren't even provided with toys. The restrooms at one facility detailed by Khan had not been cleaned for a long period of time, and indeed neither had any of the residents received hygienic treatment. With laws regarding the rights of disabled persons as they are (particularly the mentally disabled in Bulgaria) many of the people in the facility Khan visited had been "abandoned by society with nothing to do and nothing to hope for… excluded from society on a basis of a diagnosis which are questionable, founded on assumptions which are outdated and seldom reassessed," Khan quotes a consulting psychiatrist as saying.

As America struggles to fulfill the promises made by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which the National Council on Disabilities considers woefully slow and ill-defended by law, we must work to ensure that the human rights of persons with disabilities are no longer put on the backburner or ignored in the larger debate. Persons with disabilities should not be made to suffer degrading treatment, discrimination, exclusion or any other affront to their basic human dignity. As the U.N. committee meets on this important topic this week, we should work to raise our voices and remind everyone that human rights for disabled persons is an essential topic.

As Justin Dart said during the National Council of Disability's 2002 convention, "we must give up business as usual and fight as if the lives of billions depended on it, because they do."

Meg Burd is an anthropology graduate student. Her column runs every Friday.

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