Listen to this article on the Sky Alpha Breakfast Show
Someone with a disability usually means a person who has a long-term physical or mental health problem. These can be caused by all kinds of things, many beyond our control, like accidents or inherited conditions. Disabilities can make it difficult for people to participate in society in the same way that other people do.
Human rights law applies to everybody simply because they are human.They also aim to help specific groups who are more vulnerable to abuse and cannot always protect themselves. This means there are human rights laws agreed by the united Nations and the African Union to specially protect groups like refugees, children and disabled people.
Life can be very difficult for people with these kinds of problems because governments may not be doing all they should to protect the rights that they have as humans and as disabled people.
What are Universal Rights?
Everyone is entitled to ‘political’ and ‘civil’ rights which allow everyone to participate in society equally, as set out in the Universal Declaration by the UN. These include things like personal liberty, your right to vote and the right to not face discrimination because of things like gender, the colour of your skin or health problems. Many countries do not fully recognise disabled people as citizens, wrongly believing them to be incapable or even cursed. In Namibia for example albinism is explained by the mother having sex with a white man or a ghost. And in Guinea-Bissau, epilepsy is widely thought of as being caused by evil spirits, or sometimes as a punishment for wrongdoing. This has led to their rights being violated because they cannot represent themselves. There have been many cases of disabled people being forced to stay in institutions such as asylums or prayer camps against their will. There has even been evidence of cruel treatment in these places such as physical and verbal abuse. This kind of behaviour breaks our human right to be free from degrading o cruel treatment and punishment. The simple fact that someone has a disability does not justify forcing them to do something against their will, and this has been recognised in human rights law for disabled people in Africa.
How do these Rights Affect Disabled People?
There are not just rights to specifically protect disabled people from discrimination, they are also included equally in all other human rights too. This means that ‘positive rights’ (ones that require the government to provide something for citizens) like access to education and healthcare include disabled people as well. Human Rights Watch has reported on how children with disabilities, especially girls, cannot always access schools. This can be because travel is difficult, schools do not have the resources for disabled students or because of the fear of embarrassment. None of these should stand in the way of something every child is entitled to. It is not just parents’ job to help their child access the things that will help them like healthcare and education, but it is the government’s responsibility to include it in the law and make sure there is accessibility in society. This can include anything from punishing those who discriminate against disabled people, to making sure public buildings can be accessed by those with physical problems or making sure there are enough hospitals that people can afford if they need them. The African Union declaration on improving human rights promised basic social services, especially for those groups in society who are more at risk like women, children and people with physical or mental health conditions.
Human rights are about showing that we are all equally deserving of these basic protections. Disabilities are not something somebody chooses, just like a person cannot choose their race or the sex they are born. To punish people or not let them have the same rights as us because of their disability, would be active discrimination. It should not matter how capable somebody is, everybody is given the same dignity in our legal rights simply for being human. This dignity means that law should never permit them to be abused or denied equal opportunities.