The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force in 2008. To what extent does it help to strengthen the rights of persons with disabilities?
The Convention is the first international document that sets out binding human rights for persons with disabilities. Although there were already various precursor instruments, they all fall under the “soft law” aspect of international law and, as such, are non-binding. In contrast, countries that have signed and ratified the Convention on Rights for Persons with Disabilities are bound to enshrine the UN guidelines in their own national law. This results in specific legal rights for persons with disabilities, such as the right to an independent life within the community or integration in the open labor market.
Not only was the Convention adopted unusually quickly, it has already been ratified by 129 states. As a member of the Committee, you are one of the people responsible for checking the status of implementation in the individual countries. What are your current findings?
Many states are complying with the requirements and have submitted a report within the stipulated two-year period. That’s how things stand in terms of procedural law. However, content is naturally the most important aspect. We have established that most countries have not yet understood or implemented the paradigm shift involved in moving from a medical understanding of integration to one based on human rights. In many places, the overriding view is that persons with disabilities require protected environments and should therefore be educated in special schools or, as in Germany, in schools that focus on promoting specific areas of education.
Rangamma at work
Her error rate: zero percent – despite
the fact that she is blind
About Prof. Theresia Degener
Prof. Theresia Degener is a member of the United Nations committee for the rights of people with disabilities. She is a founding member of the Disability Studies working group in Germany.
„Ability in Disability“ helps integrate people with disabilities
Similarly, there’s a feeling they should live in designated residential facilities or need specialized occupational training. None of this corresponds to the human rights model for disabilities and is therefore not compatible with the fundamental concept of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Inclusion is one of the key terms in the Convention. It is achieved when each individual, regardless of his or her personal capabilities, is not only accepted by society but can also participate in it fully. Are there countries in which this type of interaction is already part and parcel of life?
There is no “wonderland” for disabled people. But there are a few states that act in an exemplary way in certain areas. In Australia, the U.S., and the U.K., for example, architectural barriers are viewed as discrimination and not as something
the individuals affected simply have to accept and cope with. In fact, removing obstacles by installing ramps and elevators is a political decision. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have been setting a fine example in the field of inclusive development work for more than 20 years. If a new well is being constructed in an African village, Scandinavian development workers ensure that disabled women can access it, too. That’s incredibly important, because disabled people account for a fifth of those living in poverty worldwide. Their situation is particularly precarious in developing countries. A development cooperation that integrates persons with disabilities achieves even greater success.
What is the situation in terms of persons with disabilities getting involved in politics?
I’d like to mention three African states that are setting a good example – South Africa, Uganda, and Mali. As early as the 1990s, these countries introduced quotas to ensure political participation among disabled persons. Uganda brought in a new, democratic constitution in 1995. From one day to the next, legislation made provision for a certain percentage of seats in all political bodies to be reserved for persons with disabilities. This move saw more than 20,000 disabled people assuming political office at the same time. This had a quite unbelievable effect in terms of raising awareness. In the parliaments of South Africa or Mali, too, it’s also become perfectly normal to have representatives who are deaf or have other impairments. In many respects, these states are a great deal more progressive than most others.
A portrait of Prof. Theresia Degener and her work with the United Nations.
Apart from quota legislation, what can help to increase the number of employees with disabilities?
It starts at the job search and placement stage. Here in Germany, advisors in employment agencies need to be better prepared for discussions with disabled people. The same applies to those working in in-company health management. This is particularly true in view of the increasing occurrence of mental health issues such as stress or depression. These illnesses often become chronic – if so, they then fall into the disability category. In addition, the Ordinance on Workplaces is designed to ensure workplaces are free from barriers.
Quote: There is no wonderland for disabled people. But there are a few states that act in an exemplary way in certain areas.
Prof. Dr. Theresia Degener
“Human rights apply to everyone”
Prof. Degener gives a 30-minute speech on the subject of inclusion. (German)
Rangamma at work
Her error rate: zero percent - despite
the fact that she is blind.
Prof. Thereasia Degener on topic of "The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: How to Use it" at the 4th International Summer School - Centre for Disability Law and Policy, National University of Ireland.
Have employment opportunities for persons with disabilities changed compared to when you started your career in the 1990s?
There are now people with severe disabilities on the open labor market and in higher education. That’s something that’s really changed. However, the proportion of people with disabilities actually in work is still far too low. In 2009, the employment rate was 52 percent for disabled persons compared to 79 percent for those without disabilities. The figure for disabled women is even lower, at just 47 percent. Against this backdrop, I feel it is essential that more companies start to view the inclusion of persons with disabilities as part of diversity management, and drive it forward accordingly. I’d like to see that happening in the next ten years.