Call for culture of 'assisted citizenship'


President Michael D Higgins has said that he has been “horrified” to witness the “great struggles for the extension of democracy being placed in peril across all areas of society”.

It was a matter now of “securing the ground, rather than advancing social and human rights”, Mr Higgins said at NUI Galway (NUIG) yesterday in a departure from a prepared script.

Opening NUIG’s fourth international disability summer school, Mr Higgins also called for a review of international policy towards developing countries to ensure that it was “human rights-driven”, rather than influenced by a “State-defined needs basis” of development.

Mr Higgins, who pointed out that he was developing themes raised at his London School of Economics speech last February, said that there was “no more urgent time for intellectual workers than at present”.

He criticised “unaccountable models” within academia which were not exposed to the full rigours of scholarship, and the creation of “artificial barriers, such as the misuse of culture”.

Responding to NUIG president Dr James Browne’s emphasis on the role of civic engagement in the university, Mr Higgins said that “active scholarship” may be necessary for recovery at a time of “intellectual crisis” in the world.

Mr Higgins said that he strongly supported the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was a central theme of the summer school.

Ireland had signed the UN convention in March,2007, but would not ratify until “ready to fully apply the convention” with enactment of new mental capacity legislation.

Issues raised by the UN convention had much in common with those issues arising from development theory and policy, Mr Higgins said.

There was a growing demand for a UN “rights-driven” development policy which would replace state-defined “needs basis” models, he said.

Recalling a time in Ireland when disability meant “automatic segregation, disenfranchisement or being placed at the margins, or even outside, of normal society”, Mr Higgins said that if we were to have a “truly inclusive citizenship”, all citizens should be accorded equal recognition before the law.

A “cursory glance” at anthropology showed that sophisticated strategies for inclusion existed in some indigenous societies thousands of years ago, he noted.

“If we are to effectively address these critical issues, we must look to the general principles contained in Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” Mr Higgins said.

These principles supported and valued the “innate dignity and autonomy of persons living with disability”, and espoused “their freedom to make their own choices” and to be participative citizens, he said.

“We must seek to move to a culture of assisted citizenship, where a member of society with a mental disability may receive appropriate support in making decisions without relinquishing their right to actually make that decision themselves,”he said.

“By depriving citizens of the right to represent themselves, and to make important decisions regarding their lifestyle and their medical care, we fail to promote their inclusion in society and we contradict the principles to which we should aspire,”he said.

These were principles which espoused the upholding of a “social rather than a medical model of disability” and which required the “integration of the fields of mental health law, non-discrimination, and legal capacity”.

The fourth international summer school, which runs until June 23rd, is being hosted by NUIG’s Centre for Disability Law and Policy, headed by Prof Gerard Quinn, in tandem with Prof Michael Stein of the Harvard Law School project on disability.

It is the largest summer school of its type in the world, and has attracted 29 nationalities to Galway, Prof Browne noted at yesterday’s opening session.