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Tom Shakespeare

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Tom is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University. His non-fiction books include Genetics Politics: from Eugenics to Genome and The Sexual Politics of Disability.

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Make a date

8th March 2008

In a few weeks, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has its first birthday, so get ready for hoopla. Break out the champagne and get down to the card shops to buy an anniversary card.
The logo of the United Nations
The first human rights treaty of the twenty first century has been widely celebrated as a victory for the disability rights community, a recognition of the shared humanity of disabled and non-disabled people, and a legally binding document which will make a major difference to the lives of DWPs everywhere. It opened for signatures on 30 March 2007, and at the last count, 125 countries had signed up to its provisions.

Everyone agrees that disabled people are amongst the poorest of the poor, and deserve a better deal. A bright shiny law which brings this woeful state of affairs to people's attention and demands action can only be a good thing, and I willingly applaud those who worked so tirelessly to achieve it.

However, this year also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That might raise a note of caution amongst all those who show such optimism about the impact of UN Conventions and other international statutes. The Universal Declaration guarantees us all a fair trial, freedom from torture, arbitrary arrest or detention, the right to an adequate standard of living and equal pay, amongst other worthy goals. But many of these rights are more notable for how they're breached rather than how they're observed - not least in America, land of the free and the host of the United Nations.

The UN Declaration was always a wish list rather than a piece of binding legislation, but don't look too closely at the more recent Conventions on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or the Conventions outlawing Torture and Genocide, because you'll only get depressed at their lack of impact too.

After all, more than 50 of the world's nations - from Argentina to Zimbabwe - already have anti-discrimination legislation in place to protect the rights of disabled people, and the effectiveness of these specific national laws is, to say the least, mixed. Even the most widely celebrated and much emulated statute, the Americans with Disabilities Act, has had a varied impact. Certainly, disability access is much better in the USA than in most countries, but disabled Americans remain disproportionately poor and socially excluded. There's even an academic debate raging as to whether the ADA might actually have increased unemployment among disabled people, as the statistics seem to imply.

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham declared that rights were "nonsense on stilts". I think he meant that it's all very well promising people the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that doesn't help them very much unless someone is prepared to do something about it. It's hard, though still possible, to protect negative rights - i.e. the right not to be enslaved - but it's almost impossible to guarantee positive rights - i.e. the right to employment or the right to have a family.

Guaranteeing people formal equality or freedom sounds great, but what really improves quality of life is access to employment or, failing that, adequate welfare benefits or services. Human rights tends to focus on the individual, whereas it's more often structural and community solutions that are required.

Passing disability civil rights statutes is relatively simple and looks nice. Doing something to improve the situation for disabled people is complicated, costly and difficult. So expect lots of the former and less of the latter in future.

Despite my scepticism, I do realise that the UN Convention will have a gradual impact. For those countries who have never imagined that disabled people might have rights, the UN Treaty will be a timely reminder and a guide to action. The requirement to report regularly on the progresss made in implementing disability rights may also have an effect. Symbolically, the new law further contributes to disability being understood as a political issue rather than a medical problem. That's all brilliant.

Yet I still can't help making an admittedly loose analogy with Mother's Day. Every year, on the first Sunday in March, we have a national day on which we buy a card for our mums (if we remember), and perhaps some flowers or chocolates too. That's nice, that's right, and so we should. But Mother's Day is never going to do much to make the world a better place to be a mother. Similarly, I suspect that the UN Convention is only a small part of the immense effort that is required to achieve a better outcome for disabled people. It's important to remember that no law can deliver everything we hope for. The venerable English saying "fine words butter no parsnips" springs to mind. Happy anniversary.
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