US envoy says voices of disabled must be heard


Strides made in Ireland to create more equality praised by Heumann as an example to others, writes RONAN McGREEVY

THERE ARE about a billion people in the world with a disability, accounting for 15 per cent of the population, according to a recent report by the World Bank and the World Health Organisation.

It is an enormous number of people who are often overlooked in the developed world where the prevalence of disability is a lot less than it is in the developing world.

A person in the developing world, where 80 per cent of all disabilities are found, is twice as likely to have a disability than somebody in the developed world.

The continued existence of malnutrition and childhood diseases such as polio, measles and malaria, which have all but been eradicated in the developed world, is another factor giving rise to disabilities in poorer countries.

HIV/Aids is a common cause of disability and it affects more than 33 million people worldwide, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

The presence of conflicts in countries such as Congo, Cambodia, Laos, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan has left millions of people with disabilities caused by landmines.

In addition, better healthcare means that life expectancy is growing, but that has left people susceptible to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mental disorders which increase the ranks of the disabled.

It is with this global landscape in mind that US president Barack Obama appointed Judith Heumann as his disability envoy in 2010. She was previously a special adviser to president Bill Clinton.

Heumann is monitoring how disabled people are treated in developing countries and how the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was agreed in 2006, is being implemented.

Heumann contracted polio when she was 18 months old and has been to the forefront of the independent living movement for disabled people.

She was the keynote speaker recently at a conference on disability organised by NUI Galway in the Convention Centre Dublin and also visited many disability facilities in Ireland.

She notes that the UN convention has been signed by both the US and Ireland, but has not been ratified yet by either country. The previous government and the present Coalition have promised to ratify it once all the legislation involved has been passed into law.

Nevertheless, Heumann was full of praise for the strides made in Ireland to create more equality for disabled people and for the work that Irish Aid does with disabled people in developing countries.

“My message really is that the voices of disabled people need to be heard and governments in developing countries need to have opportunities to learn from countries like Ireland and the United States about how to develop effective legislation and how to develop implementation of the work that we do in areas like education, city and rural planning, transport planning and housing development.

“Many countries in Asia and Africa have the desire to implement the convention, but lack the knowledge and expertise about what to do.”

Heumann says there is a greater awareness of the needs of the disabled as a result of the convention even while many countries lack the financial wherewithal to implement it.

“What you are seeing in many countries is the emergence of disability rights organisations and disabled people’s organisations, and a growing interest on the part of governments to develop laws in the 105 countries that have ratified the treaty,” she says.

Her own country is not noted for its social protection measures or its welfare provisions, but in relation to the disabled, she praises the first president Bush who signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 which outlawed many forms of discrimination.

She says that in a divided Congress where Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on budget provisions, they can at least agree not to row back on help for the disabled despite the recession.

“In the United States, the major laws that have been passed have been done in a bi-partisan manner. That has been very fortunate. Republicans and Democrats have been able to work together. Disability is not exclusive to any particular party.

“We have very strong laws in the United States which protect against discrimination of disabled people in transportation, construction, etc. Those laws will stay in place even when times get more difficult.”