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Disability and human rights.

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Thursday 12 February 2004

Professor Marcia Rioux, Dirctor, York Center of Health Studies, Canada


Disability and Human Rights  

People get passionate about a lot of things these days - terrorists, the price of football tickets, taxes, and refugees being allowed to come into the country….. What I don’t hear is the same level of passion about the denial of people’s fundamental citizenship rights. There is a deafening silence about the conditions in which marginalised people are living - the grinding poverty, the poor health conditions, the homelessness, the segregation, the physical inaccessibility of buildings, and the isolation. Why are these conditions so invisible in Western nations? Let me explore how it happens with the 20% of the population who are disabled. 


The idea of disability rights has been an oxymoron for most of history. People with disabilities have historically been outsiders, those without citizenship and rights. They are part of the group in society who are poor and disenfranchised. They have never been insiders and have no clear point of entry to claim their rights to the social and economic benefits of society. 


Characterised as incompetent, non-competitive members of society people with disabilities are seen as people in need of physical and mental repair - they need to be fixed and taken care of. So we have programmes in place for addressing those issues - programmes for prevention and for rehabilitation. 


Making disability a health problem or a problem that resides in the individual deficit or shortcoming is inaccurate. Worse than inaccurate it also contributes to the oppression of people with disabilities. They are victims of judgements about what is normal in society. Just for a moment consider that the charity and care we give people with disabilities in an attempt to make them “normal” is actually a breach of their rights to be participating members of society. 


The fixing needs to be on the other side. The social determinants of disability need to be named and acknowledged. These are the barriers that make it difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to participate in society - including physical barriers, lack of social supports, limited employment or inhospitable working conditions, exclusion from schools and the consequent lack of education, differential health services and treatment, segregation in total care service environments, and inaccessible public transportation. None of these are a consequence of the physical, sensory, intellectual of psychiatric impairments that people have. They are the result of a society that sees diversity and differences as a detriment and so structure environments in which people cannot participate. And then, ironically, expects that people can overcome those obstacles if they want to participate. Disability rights abuses become adopted as part of good practice, part of the way things are, a part of the ordinary for those with disabilities. We have to be sensitive to the way in which profession expertise and judgement have legitimised discrimination. 


In a study of employment in Canada, we found that the single most important reason why people with disabilities weren’t employed was because they didn’t have transportation. This was independent of the extent of their disability. This is discrimination. This is a denial of rights. Just as putting people in institutions are a denial of rights. 


Many of the initiatives that have been put in place over the past 40 years, while charitable, have proved to be barriers to inclusion and to the exercise of human rights. We have over-classified, over-programmed and over-built facilities for people with disabilities at the expense of their inclusion and the full expression of citizenship rights. 


This raises some challenging questions: What is it about the very nature of the way you run your office that people with disabilities cannot participate? What is it about the way you run your school that people with physical and intellectual disabilities can’t learn there? What is it about your housing and support programmes that they cannot accommodate people with disabilities? 


Services, supports, programmes, funding allocations must have inclusion built into their designs. They are not ends in themselves but are means to social and economic integration and legal and social rights. 


It is time that we challenged ourselves to include people. It is time that we recognised that giving kindness is NOT equivalent to ensuring rights. People, even significantly disabled people, are entitled to participate. It is our failing not to have found a way to include them. These denials of rights are what we should be hearing people being passionate about.  


Guests on this program:

Marcia Rioux  

Professor Rioux holds a PhD in Jurisprudence and Social Policy. She holds multiple positions at York University, Canada - Director of the York Centre of Health Studies, Chair of the School of Health Policy and Management, and Graduate Director of the MA (Critical Disability Studies). She’s in Melbourne this week for Rhetoric to Reality: Making Human Rights Work, a conference at RMIT.