Thomas Schindlmayr This opinion piece was prepared by Thomas Schindlmayr on rights of disabled people and thier life in contemporary world. Thomas Schindlmayr This opinion piece was prepared by Thomas Schindlmayr on rights of disabled people and thier life in contemporary world.

Thomas SchindlmayrMore than once I have been asked to leave establishments because my presence would “lower the tone.” On trains, there have been times when I have had to ride in freight cars among mail bags, bicycles, and farm animals. I have been refused entrance to restaurants and nightclubs for ‘security’ reasons, or I have been admitted only on nights when nobody else was there.

The reason is that I am in a wheelchair and have been ever since I was in a car accident over thirty years ago when I was four years old. In many ways and in some places, times and attitudes are changing, and I am no longer looked upon as the pariah I once was. Legal rights that prohibit discriminatory practices and behaviour against persons with disabilities have already gone a long way in some countries. But, why should this only be limited to some places? We now have a human rights treaty that can make a substantial difference.

My experiences are nothing compared to many of the other 650 million persons with disabilities in the world who are often shunned by their family and ostracised by society. Most have no means of obtaining an education, with little chance of getting a job, living independent lives and fully participating in society. With few opportunities to be self-sufficient they are left to live at the margins, hidden away and forgotten.

Persons with disabilities are still widely viewed as troublesome at best, a burden at worst. Negative attitudes remain the largest obstacle towards the acceptance of persons with disabilities into society, along with a lack of opportunities, societal barriers and inadequate legal protection. The fact is that in over two-thirds of countries there is still no anti-discrimination legislation.

It takes time for attitudes towards persons with disabilities to change. But it is a process that can be vastly accelerated by a change in the legal framework, and now, the countries of the world have unanimously agreed on a legally-binding treaty. The new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly in December 2006 after three years of negotiations involving the disability community, governments, and international organizations. In March, 80 countries demonstrated their commitment by signing the Convention the day it opened for signature.

The new Convention ensures that persons with disabilities enjoy the same rights as everyone else. It offers a minimal standard that the international community has agreed upon, and for some real human rights for the first time. The Convention covers a number of areas where persons with disabilities have not enjoyed their human rights such as education, employment, health, political participation, access to justice, accessibility and mobility in society. In practice, this would result in such things as making electoral booths accessible, anti-discrimination practices in the workplace, and children with disabilities attending mainstream schools.

Already, the Convention is making its mark. For instance, Jamaica has drafted a National Disability Act and Panama has incorporated the Convention into its legislation. Disability activists from Spain to India and Nigeria have called on their government to ratify and implement the treaty. There is a growing recognition for the need to change.

Over one hundred countries have signed the Convention and so far four countries have ratified it. Seventeen more are needed for the Convention to enter into force. As parliamentarians everywhere consider whether to enact the treaty, they should recognise that for too long, individuals with disabilities have been treated as lesser people. Far from implementing policies that cater for all people in society, many have discriminated persons with disabilities. Often decisions have been made on our behalf, not necessarily in our best interests.

The Convention is long overdue but it is never too late to enact measures that will ensure that the world’s largest minority enjoy their human rights. It may take time to realise, but everyone benefits when all people, including persons with disabilities, are given the same opportunities as everyone else. It is now up to countries to ratify and implement the Convention to ensure that persons with disabilities no longer face the practices and behaviour that I and others have endured.

Thomas Schindlmayr works for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs on disability issues.