Human rights are universal and that means they apply to us all. Yet the language surrounding human rights and their instruments can mean that human rights are not universally understood. Many people don’t feel connected to them or that they offer solutions or opportunities for inclusion. Terms such as UNCRPD, optional protocol, progressive realisation, periodic review and enforcement mechanism don’t feel very user-friendly.
But rights are real, and often we often don’t realise that until we are restricted in them. Ireland has signed up to many international rights instruments, and when we do so we are saying that we agree with them and want our society to reflect them. One of those agreements is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). In allowing over a decade to pass between signing the UNCRPD without ratifying it, which would bring the Convention into force, Ireland has sent a clear message to the International community – disabled people don’t matter and disabled people accessing their rights is not a priority for us.
The challenge that I set myself when I was invited to edit this edition of Frontline, was bridging the gap between the legalistic and academic language of human rights and the reality of the lived experience. I wanted to show that disabled people accessing their rights does matter.
The UNCRPD, when ratified, will help, even though it does not create any new or special rights. Disabled people don’t want special rights, they want the same rights as everybody else. This edition of Frontline articulates that, and features a number of articles from self-advocates clearly talking about what matters to them and what support they identified for themselves to achieve their goals. They talk about inclusion, being in the world with everyone else and enjoying the same things as everyone else. The self-advocate stories talk about lofty ambitions, such as buying your own home or representing Ireland on the international stage or on celluloid, but also everyday things like going to college, having your own possessions or simply having a choice.
If Ireland was to ratify the UNCRPD, we would begin to be monitored on the international stage. Our performance on the rights of disabled people would be scrutinised. In preparation for this, we could look to Malta for an idea as to how disabled people could participate in this monitoring work. It is critical that the lived experience of disabled people is at the forefront of all political or legal analysis and the Maltese experience offers us a roadmap.
It should not be assumed that Ireland would perform well under any such monitoring. Our close neighbours in the UK were examined by the UNCRPD Committee in August 2017 and were said to have “totally neglected” disabled people and that cuts there had caused a “human catastrophe”. Ireland, as we know, has come through a period of economic turmoil and many of the experiences here mirror our neighbours to the North and East.
Why is Ireland delaying ratification? Perhaps Ireland is afraid that such a critical glare would be cast upon us and like the UK, we would not fare well? We can only speculate as to how we would perform if such a monitoring eye were cast upon us. When he was quizzed on our bewildering failure to ratify in December 2016, Minister for Disability Issues Finian McGrath said that while Ireland was “one of the few EU-member States yet to ratify the Convention . . . in terms of quality of service and actual position of persons with disabilities in society, Ireland is in many respects in advance of other EU States”.
When we look at some of the contributions in this edition, we get a picture of how living in Ireland is for disabled people. Stories detailing the continued existence of the Victorian-era 1871 Lunacy Act, the effect of which is so restrictive and undignified. We look at the continued denial of people with disabilities of their rights to form a family or have children, or indeed to enjoy their reproductive rights as they choose. We see the barriers that people with disabilities experience to accessing justice, supports. We witness the difficulty we have in keeping people with disabilities safe from abuse or neglect, and when we consider the 2,500 people who are still within the walls of institutions then any claim that we are in advance of other EU States needs robust challenging.
There are reasons to be cheerful, but they are not in the form of green-shoots from the State or government, but from people with disabilities themselves. Self-advocacy is and will always be the most effective form of advocacy. When we see people with disabilities demanding their rights, to make their own decisions, to live in the community instead of an institution, to travel, to perform, to play sport, to work, to study, to enjoy their rights equally with others, then it becomes clear. It will not be through an act of perceived charity or benevolence that disabled people take their rightful place as equal citizens, but through pressure. That pressure must be led by disabled people, but we can all help by joining in the demand for equality. Ireland will eventually ratify the UNCRPD, perhaps through embarrassment alone. When we do, we will see whether we are truly in advance of other States in respect to the rights of disabled people or whether, as is certain, there is significant work still to be done.
In either case, it is crucial that disabled people themselves are the ones to adjudicate, and then the real work can begin.