- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

An occasional soul helps a person in a wheelchair navigate traffic in a treacherous intersection. Others give handouts to the many school-age children with disabilities who roam the streets of poor communities. For many of the world’s 650 million persons with disabilities, these small acts of kindness are, sadly, the biggest breaks they get.

For too long, persons with disabilities have been forced to depend on the kindness and generosity of a few. Paternalism has driven society’s attitude toward those with disabilities, as objects of charity and pity. All too often, they are stripped of the right to determine their own lives, a right most people take for granted.

No matter a country’s human-rights or economic situation, the disabled are always the last in line, whether in going to school, getting a job, voting or obtaining health care. They often live at the margins and in the shadows of society. The existing human-rights machinery has clearly failed to protect their rights adequately.

A revolution is within reach, with the opening for signature last Friday of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly last December.

At its core, the new convention ensures that persons with disabilities enjoy the same human rights as everyone else and are able to lead their lives as fully fledged citizens who can make valuable contributions to society if given the same opportunities as others. It is a treaty all governments and individuals should welcome.

The disability community came together at the global level to fight for a specific treaty that would recognize their rights. They contended, correctly, that the basic rights others enjoyed somehow were not applied to them. At the United Nations, governments and the disability community worked together to negotiate a treaty that ensures that persons with disabilities finally enjoy the same rights as others.

The convention demands real change through not only a shift in attitude but also effective legislation and other measures. The 45 countries that have enacted some legislation on this issue have already demonstrated that change in the area of rights for persons with disabilities is far more rapid when there are laws to promote it. However, initiatives for persons with disabilities have been piecemeal and frequently failed to fully achieve the desired results. The new convention, far more comprehensive than many existing laws, explicitly states that discriminatory practices against persons with disabilities are no longer permissible.

As with the implementation of all basic human rights, the convention does have cost implications, although fears of out-of-control expenditure are unsubstantiated. The convention is forward-looking and does not call on budget-strapped governments to pay for measures they cannot afford. But minimum measures to respect basic human dignity are necessary and, we believe, feasible.

And the economic contributions must not be underestimated, including tax revenues, from significant human potential that too often is untapped. When discrimination is overcome and obstacles removed, persons with disabilities are able to work as well, if not better, than anyone else. Businesses will stand to gain far more than the minimal upfront costs of making themselves accessible.

The convention is a sensible first step in promoting the human rights of persons with disabilities. It provides an important catalyst to correct injustices. It marks the end of the de facto second-class citizenship inflicted upon persons with disabilities. And it reminds us that human rights and development are truly for all.

Louise Arbour is the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Jose Antonio Ocampo is U.N. undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs.

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