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Why do we need Disability Rights if we all have Human Rights?

Guest blog by Nic Cook, a SRA Community Researchers from Difference North East, which is a charity that campaigns to end the discrimination of disabled people.


Disability Rights

November 18th sees the start of Disability History Month. The themes this year are Sex and Relationships, and Hidden Disabilities. What a great time to have a think about human rights and disability. Disabled people’s human rights are routinely denied, in directly or indirectly discriminatory ways. For example, through receiving degrading or humiliating treatment in care settings and elsewhere, under diagnosis (especially in women, which is a whole other blog post!), questioning of our capacity to make decisions about ourselves, of accessible information and communication systems, physical barriers to access, and stigma and opposition to us having sex, relationships and families.

Lisette Auton, North East based disabled writer, activist, and creative practitioner, wears a purple t-shirt which reads ‘disability is not a bad word’. She is holding her purple walking stick with her eyes and mouth wide open.
Photo credit: Laura Tindall at PaperBoat Photography

The Disability Rights Movement, beginning in the 70’s and 80’s fought significantly for the rights of disabled people. The introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 made it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in connection with employment and services. As such, service providers are required to make reasonable adjustments to make sure we could access them. We also have the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) which aimed to move perceptions of disabled people away from ‘“objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection’ towards disabled people as:


‘“subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society’ (UN CRPD).


The CRPD also was the first human rights treaty to ensure that international development is accessible and inclusive of disabled people. This was pertinent recently at COP26 where the first EVER climate conference event to directly address climate action and climate justice for disabled people took place. Another landmark in the law is the Equality Act 2010 which further protected people from discrimination arising from disability, or something connected to your disability like needing time off work for medical appointments. What this means is that it is always lawful to treat a disabled person more favourably than a non-disabled person because a) we need it, and b) our rights protect it.


Human Rights

So, why do we need Disability Rights, if the rights of all humans are protected under the Human Rights act? Well, my friends, history paints us a grim picture of how the rights of disabled people were consistently ignored. In the 1800s, disabled people were considered to be inadequate, wretched individuals who were deemed unfit and unable to contribute to society. Disabled people were used as objects of entertainment (think circuses and freakshows), assumed to be ‘feeble-minded’, and often sterilised (which still happens in parts of the world).


Disabled people were hidden and segregated from society and their communities, in institutions and asylums. This invisibility has perpetuated discrimination and prejudice and instances of abuse still proliferate today in this sort of toxic environment. Although we as disabled people, are protected by Human Rights (because we’re humans!), we ultimately need further protections against a system that seeks to disregard and harm us.


As part of the Community Researchers action research project with the Social Rights Alliance, I’ve been thinking hard about how our campaigns can embed a human rights-based approach. These rights abuses are what our campaigns try to bring to the surface. We aim to get the institutions we work within and with, to understand and realise that through ableist practices, processes and actions, we disabled humans are being denied access not only to [insert literally anything here] * but to our human rights too.


Human Rights-Based Approach

Poverty is both a cause and consequence of disability. Being disabled in the North East, where our work is based, means that you; have worse physical and mental health; are less likely to be employed; and have lower levels of education. Active efforts from the UK government to roll back welfare provision leaves disabled people poorer, sicker, and stigmatised for needing to claim benefits in the first place. I mean, benefits themselves have been reframed as a burden on the public, which takes us right back to those views from the 1800’s where we were deemed incapable of contributing. In fact, it’s worse now in 2021: we are a drain on resources. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these conditions. Likewise, during Covid-19, people with a learning disability and autistic people were discriminated against in Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation decisions. We must be part of the work to stop that happening. We desperately need to change this narrative as a society.


We want to dismantle the barriers that exclude disabled people from participating. A rights-based approach seeks ways to respect, support and celebrate human diversity which means not only allowing, but supporting the full participation of disabled people. That also means addressing systemic injustices like poverty and lack of access to services and resources, which disproportionately impact upon disabled people’s lives. Our inherent ableism that stigmatises and marginalises disabled people needs bringing out into the open, discussed and dismantled. In this way, we can all impact and form the policies, laws and practices that stand in the way of our ability to exercise our economic, social, and cultural rights.


Disability History Month is a great opportunity for everyone to start thinking of ways that they can help do this. You can join Difference North East as a member, whether you’re disabled or non-disabled, to help fight discrimination.


*Try it. ‘healthcare’ ‘transport’ ‘equality’ ‘cats’ ‘parties’…




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