Thursday, May 29, 2008

Disability Dust-Up in Beijing

Well, well, well.

A day or two ago, London’s Times reported that official, but curious, Chinese attitudes towards people with disabilities have surfaced in the run-up to this summer’s Olympics, and, perhaps more unfortunately, for the World Paralympics also scheduled for Beijing in September.

It turns out that the official Olympic guide for both events, “Skills for helping the disabled,” distributed to 100,000 Chinese volunteers, contains a curious mix of plain old prejudice and plain old ignorance.

Let’s take the prejudice first. The Times reported that the Guide notes that:

"Some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial, and introspective. They can be stubborn and controlling; they may be sensitive and struggle with trust issues. Sometimes they are overly protective of themselves, especially if called “crippled” or “paralysed” "

People with disabilities are also a “special group” with “unique personalities and ways of thinking.”

Well, where to start? Watch out!! They’re different!! They’re separate from those of us without disabilities!! Be careful!! Caution!! Caution!! Run away!! Run away!!

Great PR message, don’t you think?

Of course, as we all know, those without disabilities are never isolated, unsocial, and introspective, and don’t have, thank goodness, unique personalities and ways of thinking.

Phew! Glad we got that straight.

Other observations are just plain ignorant. How about:

“They show no differences in sensation, reaction, memorisation and thinking mechanism from other people, but they might have unusual personalities because of disfigurement and disability.”

Wrong again. Some people with disabilities do, indeed, have differences from the norm in terms of sensation, memorization, and cognitive skill. Just exactly what an “unusual” personality is, and how you get it because you have a “disfigurement” or a “disability” is beyond me.

But hey, there’s hope!!! The Guide opines this little gem:

“Disabled people can be mentally healthy.”

Nah!! You sure?? Who knew?

All is not lost, however, The Guide also takes a stab at some quasi-accurate statements, such as:

"When you make eye contact, do not fuss or show unusual curiosity. Never stare at their disfigurement. A patronising or condescending attitude will be easily sensed, even for a brain-damaged patient."

Don’t ask me—about the brain-damaged part, I mean.

This in a country with about 83 million people with some form of disability.

To be fair, the report also acknowledges that while the Guide is spectacularly clumsy, the effort to recognize people with disabilities is a major step forward for the Chinese. Also, on the legal front, there's some progress, as reported last month.

OK. They better work hard—they’ve got a very long way to go.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Not a Good Time to Have a Disability in South Africa

I know South Africa very well – I’m a South African. My father’s family arrived in South Africa generations before the US became an independent country.

Today, I weep for my homeland, because South Africa is drenched in African blood. If you can stomach it, it's not difficult to find photos of the unspeakable violence all over the web.

Long-simmering ethnic animosity has seen dozens of people beaten, stoned, burned, shot, and stabbed to death. Thousands are seriously injured. Tens of thousands more are displaced, fleeing their homes ahead of marauding gangs whose chief aim is murder, followed by the usual accoutrements of looting and rape.


Because the murderers are stoning, beating, burning, shooting, and stabbing people they see as different.

Here’s how it works: If you’re a South African African, no problem. Not a South African African? Watch out.

This horrific thuggery is being aimed at refugees who have fled other parts of Africa in the hopes of making a life for themselves in “the New South Africa” as its often fondly called. Now, they are paying a terrible, unjust price for that hope of a better life.

My birthplace, Johannesburg, has been scene of most of the carnage. Thousands are flocking to churches and police stations for protection.

As the bloodlust rises to fever pitch, the most vulnerable are among the first to succumb to rock, flame, gun, or machete—especially Africans with disabilities. They’re easy prey to satisfy that bloodlust of difference, you see.

Read on.

South Africa’s Mail and Guardian reported that:

A marquee tent had been set up at the police station for mothers and children, but the children were complaining of hunger and cold. At about 2pm, a team from the Methodist Church arrived with boxes of apples and loaves of sliced bread and almost sparked a stampede. 
Scores of blind Zimbabwean beggars who had been brutalised and robbed by the mobs were being pushed aside by the hungry crowds.

The Times reported what happened to an African with severe communication impairments:

One victim was a deaf mute who was attacked outside the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. Known only as “Tarro,” the young man suffered a gash to his forehead at the hands of a mob. 

Medical student Herbert Nedi tended to him and said the bewildered Tarro, who could only write his name and could not provide a surname, did not know what was happening around him.“

It was clear he did not have a clue what they [the mob] were talking about. He doesn’t understand what is going on,” said Nedi, as Tarro held a cloth to his head.

Make no mistake. There are, and will be, many others.

Unable to walk.

Unable to run.

Unable to see.

Unable to hear.

Unable to comprehend the deadly blow of a rock.

Unable to stop the body blow of a bullet.

Unable to douse the searing heat of being burned alive.

Unable to understand the swish of the machete.


Pray for South Africa. Pray more for South Africans with disabilities.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Well Deserved Celebration in the UN General Assembly

Monday’s celebration at the UN was all that it should have been. As I noted last week, we gathered to celebrate the adoption into force of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The General Assembly was alive with as diverse a group of people as you’re ever likely to see: Not only were they diverse in terms of their ethnicity, gender, national affiliation, political stripe, and dress. They also steered wheelchairs and wielded white canes. There were silent (but often highly animated) sign-language conversations. Personal caregivers hovered when needed, but slipped quietly out of sight when they weren’t. The documents table groaned under a mountain of books and handouts in Braille.

Promptly at 1.15, Akiko Ito, Chief of the Secretariat of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, called the event to order.

Highlights included the address of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and that of UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Kyung-wha Kang.

Other messages were delivered by H.R.H. Prince Ra’ad Bin Zeid (Jordan), Ms. Vivian Fernández de Torríjos, (First Lady, Panama), and Ms. Sue Van der Merwe, (Deputy Minister, Foreign Affairs, South Africa).

Other high-level officials from Mexico, Hungary, Bangladesh, Spain, as well as several from international disability organizations, also participated.

An exciting, energizing day.

Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and to turn CRPD from an international agreement into and international reality-–in every one of the 192 countries that call the UN home.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

UN Takes on Disability Worldwide

After expending enormous amounts of energy and time (since 1982), there will be a lot of backslapping and celebration at the United Nations this coming Monday.

And for good reason:

In a two-hour ceremony to be headlined by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, the UN will celebrate the formal adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

A big deal? You bet.

Here’s why. The Convention is regarded as the first new human rights treaty of this century, and is the definitive international document protecting the rights of people with disabilities around the world – all 650 million of them.

Remember, we in the developed world often assume that the rights of people with disabilities are protected. That’s true – but often only to a point, as I’ve pointed out here many times.

However, in most places in the world, people with disabilities are denied even the most basic human rights of survival, nourishment, care, education, and a host of other things that we take for granted.

Perhaps a few facts will help:

  • Eighty per cent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries
  • 20 per cent of the world's poorest people have some kind of disability, and tend to be regarded in their own communities as the most disadvantaged
  • Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse
  • Ninety per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school
  • The global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3 per cent, and 1 per cent for women with disabilities
  • For every child killed in warfare, three are injured and acquire a permanent form of disability
  • Persons with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence or rape and less likely to obtain police intervention, legal protection, or preventive care.

I think, then, that Secretary General Moon is right when he notes that: 

“It is a historic moment in our quest for realization of the universal human rights for all persons, creating a fully inclusive society for all.”

Added my colleague Akiko Ito, Chief of the Secretariat of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Focal Point on Disability:

“It had been argued that persons with disabilities were covered by existing human rights treaties, but the reality was very different. Persons with disabilities have routinely suffered discrimination in the job market, in schools and in receiving public services.  This Convention will make sure that these people will no longer be ignored.”

Signatory countries to the convention pledge to enact their own disability laws and measures to improve disability rights while simultaneously beginning to eliminate discriminatory legislation, customs, and other practices that negatively impact their citizens with disabilities.

I’ll be in the General Assembly audience to add my congratulations.