Attitudes and practice set to change after UN agrees rights convention

By adopting a convention on disability rights, the UN has thrown down a challenge to the UK government. Simeon Brody reports

The Convention to Protect Disabled Persons’ Rights, agreed by the United Nations last week, was hailed as a “historic achievement for the 650 million people with disabilities around the world” by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Its potential to achieve change in the UK, given our existing disability discrimination legislation, will now come under the spotlight.

One of the articles of the convention requires states to combat stereotypes and promote awareness of the capabilities of disabled people.

Richard Parnell, head of research at Scope, says one of the most important effects of the convention could be to change attitudes.

If disability rights are seen as being as important as the rights of children, which are defended by an existing UN convention, then “real progress” could be made in understanding that disabled people have a right to control their lives, says Parnell.

The treaty also states that disabled people have a right to life, which Parnell hopes will dispel attitudes among some that giving birth to a disabled child is a burden which should be avoided.

Leonard Cheshire international director Tanya Barron, who attended many of the UN debates, says discussions on the right to life were impassioned but warned that the issue was complex.

Contentious topics such as using genetics to prevent disability and a woman’s right to choose termination made it difficult to reach consensus, suggesting it is an issue that will inevitably provoke further debate.

More clear-cut is article 23, which states that disabled children should not be separated from parents against their will, except when it is in the child’s best interests, and “in no case” should they be separated on the basis of their or their parents’ disability.

The article is significant given University of Bristol research which found about half of parents with learning difficulties in the UK have their children taken into care.

Barron says the article could lead to more people bringing human rights cases if their children were taken away from them rather than support provided.

Alison Giraud-Saunders, codirector of the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, says one benefit of the article would
be if it resulted in guidance to local authorities to help adults and children’s services work together better to prevent children being separated from parents.

The convention was also a victory for inclusive education. According to article 24, states must ensure equal access to education, which must foster the participation of disabled people in society. Parnell says the clause may have a direct impact on the Education Act 1996, which guarantees disabled children a right to mainstream education providing it is not incompatible with the education of other pupils.

“If they ratify it [the convention] then that caveat will have to go – that will be very interesting,” he says. 

What next for the convention
The convention, the first  human rights treaty of the 21st century, sets out the rights of disabled people and requires
national governments to tackle discrimination.
Its definition of disability includes physical, mental and sensory impairments.

It is expected to be formally adopted by the UN general assembly in September before individual countries decide whether to sign up to it .

Minister for disabled people Anne McGuire last week pledged that Britain would ratify the treaty.

By endorsing the treaty, countries accept a legal obligation to promote the human rights of disabled people by enacting antidiscriminatory legislation or eliminating laws and practices that discriminate against them.

Additional reading
UN convention for disabled people: special report
The Big Question

Further information
Leonard Cheshire
Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities

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