Rebecca Beayni presents at United Nations


Aug. 20, 2005Rebecca and Anna
Helen Henderson, Life Section, Toronto Star

No teeth. A fitting epithet for those who shun dentists and laws that don't work.
Also the subject of some discussion at the United Nations this month in the course of efforts to draft a treaty on the rights of some 600 million people coping with disabilities throughout the world.
Needless to say, the ad hoc committee on a comprehensive and integral international convention on the protection and promotion of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities might not have phrased things exactly like that. But that was the gist of the message delivered by New Zealand's Don MacKay, who chaired the group, when he met with the press at the conclusion of deliberations last week.

People with disabilities already enjoy exactly the same rights as everyone else, MacKay noted. They are enshrined in such basic codes as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "The rights of persons with disabilities are recognized by the other human rights conventions, but we need to actually implement these rights...."This convention sets out a detailed code of implementation and spells out how individual rights should be put into practice."

So — no need to spend time reinventing the wheel. Let's cut to the chase.

It's a refreshing message in a world dominated by semantics and pedantics. It does not mean barriers are going to come tumbling down tomorrow. It does not mean people who move or communicate or process information differently are going to suddenly find themselves embraced. But it was one of a number of encouraging signs incorporated in the U.N. deliberations and a message Canada could take to heart.

We are justly proud of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms but what's granted on paper means little if there's no way to enforce it. Children with special needs have the right to a good education but if the resources aren't there, nothing happens. People who use wheelchairs are entitled to equal opportunities for jobs but closed minds make a mockery of the best intentions.

Reality is complicated, notes Diane Richler, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Association for Community Living, president of Inclusion International and a long-time advocate for the rights of people with an intellectual disability. "We may be promoting inclusion in education but there are many different practices." Richler, who moderated a panel on self-advocacy and inclusion during the U.N. disability sessions, says this month's open debate and consultation should provide a solid base for constructive change. She also has high hopes for an October seminar in Romania, where Inclusion International will join groups looking at disability issues in Eastern Europe.

The fact that the U.N. is inviting people with disabilities to participate in all its deliberations brings a whole new dynamic to the issues. Toronto's Rebecca Beayni, for example, told the meeting she had some concerns about the draft convention's emphasis on independence for people with disabilities. Beayni, who has physical and intellectual disabilities and does not communicate verbally, emphasized that the convention should also recognize the importance of the family and community supports needed to enable everyone to participate. In his closing remarks to delegates, MacKay said people like Beayni are making "a huge contribution" to the committee's work by bringing "experience that many delegates did not have...."The tendency has been to segregate persons with disabilities from the rest of society," he said. "But persons with disabilities perform much better, work much better, contribute much better if included in the society."

No one has any illusions about the challenges involved in getting the world to implement the rights to which people with disabilities are entitled in education, employment, transportation and every aspect of community life. Among other things, delegates noted the "enormous gap" between the resources of developed and developing countries. They agreed that countries should establish "national frameworks" to co-ordinate and monitor implementation efforts. They also discussed setting up an international monitoring body. Two more sessions are planned for next year in New York, one in January and one in August. Still a long way to go, but a road worth taking.

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Or you can write the United Nations Global Programme on Disability, Two United Nations Plaza, DC2-1372, New York, NY 10017.