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Disability and Human Rights in Latin America

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue No. 24, June-August, 2004:

Photo: Carribean children, sitting on benches, in a classroom. Centre of the photo is a girl who is using a wheelchair.

More than 50 million persons with disabilities live in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the vast majority live under harsh poverty and unbearable social exclusion. People with disabilities are among the poorest of the poor, and their progress toward economic and social development is very slow and uncertain.

On the other hand, even though there have been studies and data collection efforts, persons with disabilities in developing countries remain invisible and unrecognized.

There is still the notion in some places that the issues regarding the presence of disability is a private or at least a family matter. And, if recognized within a larger scenario, disability becomes the subject of charity. So there is this "calling to the heart of society, for help..." and, far from the correct human rights approach, persons with disabilities become victims of telethons and similar public campaigns.

The definition of disability as a human rights issue is rather new in the legal arena. The dates of approval of the disability legislation of most Latin American countries reveal that we are still dealing with an innovation. Yet, the situation is still more profound: though important, more laws do not solve the real problem.

Who assumes the responsibility for the changes in accessibility that persons with disabilities urgently need?

Many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have approved legislation, but there is no effective compliance. So there is this divorce between practice and theory.

If there was a more rigorous effort to warrant compliance with human rights, many of the situations presently faced by persons with disabilities, including discrimination and neglect, would be reported and duly treated as a violation of civil and political, as well as economic, social, and cultural, rights.

The fact that conditions needed for persons with disabilities to exercise basic human rights, such as accessible voting (ballots and voting spaces), and conditions that would permit them to become candidates for public positions, confirms that in many countries they still are not considered full citizens. This lack of citizenship is also found in some countries where persons with disabilities are not allowed to own property or to inherit.

This list of violations also includes the lack of access to quality education that would surely improve the life of persons with disabilities.

There is also a great need for the elimination of obstacles, such as discrimination and social barriers, that prevent persons with disabilities from achieving their full potential. Services like improved health and rehabilitation, accessible transportation and public spaces, need to be introduced and expanded to ensure personal and social development of persons with disabilities.

Compliance with the human rights of people with disabilities is still weak. Unfortunately, most public authorities and institutions just do not recognize, act upon or take into consideration the legal rights and human needs of persons with disabilities. There may be laws, but not a disability policy, there may be a policy, but no budget, and always there is the lack of a long-term official commitment.

In Latin American and Caribbean countries, we have found a serious lack of public policies and strategies specifically addressing the needs of persons with disabilities within their National Development Plans. So, when there are no programs, projects and effective actions in the disability area, this sector feels left out, and it is also the same results: No planning or programs that are adequately put into practice.

How can we change this panorama of repeated and systematic violations of human rights against persons with disabilities?

First, get involved. Find out what is going on. Look for reliable data: more complete information is always useful.

Second, look for and sponsor public policies that effectively address the needs of persons with disabilities. There is a compelling need to better plan and use existing resources to combat poverty, which particularly hurts persons with disabilities. We need to develop programs, projects, and actions that will have a real impact on improving the present living conditions of persons with disabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Another important element is the need to strengthen the organizations of persons with disabilities, so their programs and actions really achieve the proposed goals of a society for all, including the active and organized participation of persons with disabilities and their families. This is a vital consideration for the really global advancement of human rights.

When the Presidents and Heads of State of the countries of Ibero-America declared 2004 the Ibero-American Year of Persons with Disabilities, they assumed a serious commitment in improving the quality of life of their societies and in the promotion of human rights.

This year should not, and may not, conclude without governments establishing solid foundations for change. The hard difficulties prevailing in this sector need such changes, and the long waiting on the part of persons with disabilities demand them.

Photo: Iranian man without legs, using a wheelchair.