We need a global treaty for the disabled

HAVE long accepted my reliance on a wheelchair to move about, as I have been using one ever since my spinal cord was fractured in a car accident when I was four years old. Like so many other individuals with disabilities, I accept who I am.

By Thomas Schindlmayr

Published: Sun 20 Aug 2006, 8:41 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:37 PM

But what I can never accept are the artificial limitations imposed upon me through physical barriers such as stairs, ignorance and sometimes-downright discrimination.

This week and next, the United Nations is hosting negotiations, which include disability organisations, on a new human rights convention to protect and advance the rights of people with disabilities. Progress has been steady and there is a good chance that by the end of the next session there could be agreement on the convention’s text. If adopted and ratified, the convention the first human rights treaty of the 21st century will ensure that people with disabilities enjoy the same rights as everybody else. In some instances they will obtain effective human rights for the first time.

Some countries have made great strides, through legislation, in improving the prospects for people living with disabilities. In the US, where I now live, I can navigate city streets, take a bus, get an education, get married, and can’t be denied a job because of my disability. Life is by no means perfect obstacles still exist but I have had numerous opportunities that have allowed me to pursue my goals.

Only about 45 countries in the world, however, have legislation aimed at assuring the rights of people with disabilities, and in too many parts of the globe, having a disability is a source of social embarrassment and ostracism, and a sentence to poverty. Most of the world’s 650 million people with disabilities are denied opportunities that prevent them from ever realising their full potential.

Such discrimination can touch every facet of what it means to be human. In some countries marriage is against the law for persons with disabilities. In the world’s poorer countries, about 90 percent of children with disabilities do not go to school. For the disabled, unemployment is well above the national average in virtually every country.

I know of smart, capable people who have been turned down from jobs because of their disability. Why is this the case, when studies show that people with disabilities do as good a job, if not better, than the general population? A 30-year analysis by DuPont de Nemours showed that people with disabilities have equal or higher performance ratings, less absenteeism and better retention rates, thus reducing the high cost of turnover.

Many employers do not hire people with disabilities because they fear the cost of special accommodation and workplace changes. But a survey of US employers conducted in 2003 found that the cost of accommodating a worker with a disability was minimal, and three quarters of employers reported that their employees with disabilities did not require accommodation at all. The proposed new convention does not require countries without resources to implement such high-cost solutions as retrofitting buildings immediately. In fact, the single most effective measure changing perceptions toward persons with disabilities costs virtually nothing and would make a huge difference.

Most of all, the convention is about opening opportunities that are often taken for granted, but that have remained elusive for most people with disabilities. This convention will serve as the first step in a process that recognises that people like me not only exist, but can make meaningful contributions to society. It is not about providing special or preferential treatment, but rather, an understanding that the welfare of a country depends on the welfare of all its people.

Thomas Schindlmayr works for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs on disability issues.

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