A Human Rights Based Approach to Disability

We are delighted to present this guest post from Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. This follows on from his visit to Northern Ireland to celebrate the International Day of Human Rights on Saturday 11 December 2011.

Picture of members of the REAL Network, Elizabeth Zammit, Joanne Sansome, Dermot and Gerry with Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
From left to right: Elizabeth Zammit (REAL Network), Joanne Sansome (REAL Network), Thomas Hammarberg (Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights), Dermot Ferris (REAL Network) and Gerry Maguire (REAL Network)


A Human Rights Based Approach to Disability

One lesson I have learnt during my six years as Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe: that some people do not have same rights and opportunities as everyone else and that too little is being done to correct this injustice.

There are more than 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe. Their human rights are recognised in international treaties, not least in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) adopted in 2006. However, these rights are still far from realised and moving from rhetoric to concrete implementation has been slow. A change of attitude is required – from a charity approach to rights-based action.

There has been some progress in recent years but current policies still focus largely on institutional care, medical rehabilitation and welfare benefits. Such policies build on the premise that persons with disabilities are victims, rather than subjects able, and entitled, to be active citizens.

The key message here must be one of equal opportunities for all.  Society is enriched by being open to all of its members on an equal footing, and this in turn requires pro-active measures to make society accessible to the needs of persons with disabilities. It should, for instance, be possible for children who are blind or deaf or using wheel-chairs to attend the school of their choice.

My experience across Europe taught me that people with intellectual disabilities are often particularly stigmatised and marginalised. They are rarely consulted or listened to. A great number of people with such disabilities continue to be kept in old-fashioned and inhumane institutions. Even in more advanced societies, efforts to provide housing and other services for them in community-based settings have met with obstacles, and have been delayed or poorly organised.

It is vital that people with disabilities can participate in all decisions affecting their lives, both at an individual level and through their representative organisations. Persons with mental health and intellectual disabilities face special problems when they want to take decisions for themselves.

There is a great difference between taking away from people with disabilities their right to make decisions about their lives, and providing ‘access to support’. The first approach views people with disabilities as objects of treatment, charity and fear. The second places them at the centre of decision-making, respecting their autonomy, and viewing them as subjects entitled to the full range of human rights.

For far too long men, women and children with disabilities have had their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights violated.  However, a gradual shift in thinking has started as a result of pressure from the disability movement and other civil society groups. These groups have played an important and active role in the development of both the UN Convention and the Council of Europe Disability Action Plan 2006-2015.  These two instruments confirm clearly that the rights of persons with disabilities are human rights. States have an obligation to respect, ensure and fulfil these rights. The participation of persons with disabilities in all decisions affecting their lives, both at the individual level and through their organisations, is recognised as a fundamental principle in both, where concepts such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’ figure largely.

Making societies inclusive requires planning and systematic work. It is therefore encouraging that several European states have now formally adopted disability plans and strategies. Every country will need to develop such plans tailored to its own circumstances. Those who have tried to set priorities, define time-limits and allocate budget resources and responsibility for implementation have generally been rewarded with positive results.

>>For more information on the Council of Europe please visit their website

>>For more information on Disability Action, and the Commissioners recent visit  please visit our website