Human Rights Cut Across Ability

Human Rights Day

Several years ago, I taught human rights workshops in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa. I was working with an organization that was attempting to address the violent xenophobia that was exploding between South Africans and refugee communities.

Before I knew it, I found myself standing in bare classrooms in front of groups of teenagers in designer jeans. These kids were barely old enough to remember apartheid, yet lived its legacy every day. They nursed strongly held prejudices against the Somali shop owners in their community and immigrants and refugees in general.

How do you explain to someone whose whole history is a case study in human rights violations that the people they view as a threat to their rights are afforded rights of their own? To sit with those kids and try to convey that human rights cut across nationality, culture, religion and economics was one of the more challenging teaching experiences I’ve had.

Now in Tanzania, I find myself making similar arguments. Not only do human rights cut across nationality and culture, but they also cut across ability. In a society where resources are so limited and there are rarely enough to go around, we spend so much time fighting the belief that children with disabilities are less deserving.

A few years ago, I was speaking to Grace, who works in Building a Caring Community’s Karanga Center. Her daughter attends the “special unit” at the local primary school. (Not all primary schools in Tanzania provide these opportunities for children with disabilities.) When asked why it is important for her daughter to be able to attend school, Grace stated very simply, “She is a person like any other person.”

And really, that is the only reason one should ever need. People with disabilities have the same rights as anyone else. They don’t deserve access to health care, employment and education because they are “special” or in need of charity. They deserve these things because they are people like any other people, children like any other children.

The protections guaranteed in human rights treaties and grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were specifically applied to the context of disability in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD helped usher in a global shift from charity-oriented, medical models of disability to the human rights model. The rights-based model states that disability is not a condition of the individual to be addressed by the medical field or charity, but a social construct based on exclusion of the “other.”

We as a society need to alter our perceptions, policies and laws to be inclusive of all people, regardless of ability.

Humans are so adept at defining boundaries between the haves and the have nots and who should be included and excluded, and abilities are no exception. The principles of human rights create a framework that places our shared humanity within universal values. This should empower us to stand up for ourselves and others for equality, justice and freedom.

Today, December 10, is International Human Rights Day. 

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