Today, 3 December, is the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Observed since 1992, the day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and build respect for the dignity, rights and well-being of disabled people around the world. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of disabled people in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life. Marking this year’s international day, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said:
‘Persons with disabilities have a significant positive impact on society, and their contributions can be even greater if we remove barriers to their participation.’
Britain can be rightly proud of the message it sent to the world this summer regarding disabled people’s role in society. The Paralympic games did indeed dazzle (sometimes for reasons unconnected to the actual sports as the ‘#paralympicperving’ Twitter hash-tag revealed). A report in last week’s Times Newspaper revealed how our Paralympians have not only become household names, they are now sought after by major corporations, with earnings for speaking engagements matching those of their Olympic colleagues. Something does seem to have changed, though only time will tell precisely what.
Our success in hosting the games was perhaps the culmination of the major progress we have undoubtedly made in many areas to transform our society, removing barriers and ending discrimination. The decade between 1995 and 2005 was bookended by two Disability Discrimination Acts, expanding the law to cover almost all areas of life, and was punctuated by a series of positive developments in relation to independent living, transport, access to goods and services, mental capacity law and the rights and opportunities of disabled children. These developments have changed lives. For example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week reported that the numbers of disabled people age 19 without a level 3 qualification went down by 21% between 2000 and 2010, at a far faster rate than for non-disabled people of the same age.
Internationally, the major instrument for achieving these goals is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The UK’s leading position in the world on disability rights allowed it to play an active role in drafting the Convention and in 2009, the UK felt sufficiently confident to commit itself to implementing the duties and obligations in the Convention. Doing so received cross-Party support, with Mark Harper MP, then Shadow Conservative Spokesperson for Disabled People even describing the delay in ratifying the Convention as "staggering".
And yet in March this year, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights concluded its inquiry into disabled people’s right to independent living by saying that ‘the UNCRPD did not appear to have played a significant role in the development of policy and legislation, as is required by the Convention’ and that as a consequence:
· ‘Reforms to benefits and services risk leaving disabled people without the support they need to live independently
· restrictions in local authority eligibility criteria for social care support, the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and changes to housing benefit risk interacting in a particularly harmful way for disabled people
· some people fear that the cumulative impact of these changes will force them out of their homes and local communities and into residential care’
The Committee went on to say that ‘there seems to be a significant risk of retrogression of independent living and a breach of the UK’s obligations.’ The risks the Committee foresaw are now becoming a stark reality and look set only to get worse.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that today, Conservative politicians appear to have lost their enthusiasm for characterising issues such as independent living, access to information or an adequate standard of living as ‘human rights issues’ yet they are all obligations which the UK agreed to when it ratified the CRPD. Perhaps this is because doing so would make it somewhat more difficult to justify the present welfare reforms and spending cuts? Or perhaps it is because it might undermine its goal of repealing the Human Rights Act, a political project which relies on the public believing that human rights only benefit ‘bad people’?
Or perhaps it is because the government is generally not keen on being held to account, as reforms to judicial review, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, legal aid cuts and weakening or potentially repealing altogether the public sector equality duty suggest.
With respect to the equality duty, not only did the Prime Minister recently advise Whitehall Departments that he was ‘calling time’ on equality impact assessments, the government has now set up a review of the duty, with a steering group made up entirely of government or public sector representatives. It is unclear how, without the duty, the UK government will remain compliant with the CRPD given that it demands that the government takes ‘into account the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programmes’, that it refrains ‘from engaging in any act or practice that is inconsistent with the present Convention’ and that it ensures that ‘public authorities and institutions act in conformity with the present Convention’.
In fact, since the UK ratified the Convention, the government seems to have focused most of its energies on dismantling the very architecture of disability rights at home that allowed us to so confidently ratify the Convention in the first place. It is somewhat surprising then to read, in the UK Government’s pitch for election to the UN Human Rights Council that it is ‘committed to making a living reality of the rights enshrined in the UNCRPD, through our policies and practices that are supported by a substantial body of legislation, including the Equality Act 2010.’ Reigning back on disabled people’s rights is perverse and illogical, not just for disabled people, but for society as a whole. When evaluation of the Work Programme suggests that it has achieved less than had it not existed at all, re-building the barriers which stand in the way of disabled people’s participation is not only unjust, it is pure economic folly.
We began to see genuine progress because we set about removing the barriers that held disabled people back and because we put in place the supports which help to equalise opportunity, just as Ban Ki Moon is encouraging countries around the world to do today.
With respect to disability rights, the UK was the future once. Let’s not turn the clock back any further.