World disability rights meeting at Pittsburgh

June 17, 2009.   Disability rights leaders from the European Union and around the United States met on the University of Pittsburgh campus to discuss a United Nations treaty on the rights of people with disabilities and to exchange information about access to the built environment, information technology and transportation.
Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Science, in conjunction with the European Union Center of Excellence and European Studies Center of the University Center for International Studies, sponsored the two-day conference.

Invited keynote speaker was Luis Gallegos, UN ambassador from Ecuador, who has guided the treaty (formally known as a “convention”) through the UN. Because the ambassador was unexpectedly needed in Washington, D.C., former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh read his speech, in which he wrote that the treaty would “allow people to take hold of their destiny.”

The convention on disability rights is the UN’s ninth international human rights treaty. Its 50 articles address the rights of the estimated 650 million people with disabilities in the world, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries. Presently, only about 50 of the UN’s 192 member states have disability-specific legislation.

To date, 139 countries have signed the convention, 57 have ratified it, and 36 have proceeded to incorporate its principles into law.

The United States has neither signed nor ratified the convention, a topic of much discussion at the conference.

The treaty marks a global paradigm shift, said Katherine Seelman, associate dean of the Pitt School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “Instead of viewing people with disabilities as objects of charity, medical treatment, and social protection, the convention affirms that they have rights, can make decisions, and can be active members of society.”

Dr. Seelman, described at the conference as a “force of nature” in the local, national and international disability communities, organized the conference to bring momentum to the ratification process.

The conference included many top names in disability policy and activism. In addition to former Gov. Thornburgh, who has long been active on disability issues, attendees included Immaculada Placencia-Porrero of the European Commission and disability leaders from England, Ireland, Italy and Austria, as well as the United States.

Ms. Placencia-Porrero said that setting disability rights standards for the entire EU is complicated because each member nation has its own laws. However, leaders from each country are meeting to address the issues. All EU nations have signed the UN Convention and seven have ratified it.

The Pitt gathering of disability rights leaders, many of whom have disabilities, strongly reflected the rallying cry, “Nothing about us without us.”

One of those leaders is Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living of Metro Chicago, and president of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities.

Ms. Bristo took Americans to task for being unaware of global disability issues.

She said that although the Americans with Disabilities Act has placed the country “well along the path” of implementing the principles of the UN treaty, ratification would enable the United States to compare its policies to the ideal and to align them. It would also be an opportunity to improve foreign assistance, she said.

“The UN convention is an incredible opportunity to change the world, but many people in the U.S. don’t know what it is. We need to catch up,” she said, noting that President Barack Obama supports ratification.

“We have an important role to play. We have a lot to learn and a lot to give,” she said, adding that there are numerous opportunities for international exchange on a personal level.

Locally, the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors has been providing such opportunities. PCIV is Western Pennsylvania’s liaison for the International Visitor Leadership Program for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. PCIV hosts groups of emerging international leaders and has helped place Pittsburgh on the international map as a resource on disability issues.

Over the past couple years, disability leaders from Afghanistan, Armenia, Bhutan, Georgia, India, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine have met with professionals at Pitt and CMU, public and private schools, non-profit and government agencies and cultural organizations.

By and large, these visitors come from economies where disability resources are limited, said executive director Gail Shrott. ” Some visitors are surprised that we don’t have orphanages for children with disabilities, that children with disabilities live with their families in accessible homes.

“They remark about how many people with disabilities are visible in everyday life, working at jobs and having a wide range of opportunities. They comment about the sidewalks with curb cuts, all the technology, and even things like adaptive sports. They are interested in how we achieved this.

“Our culture has changed to see disability differently, and Pittsburgh is a good representation of that. When they visit here, they can see the fruition of the culture change. In many cases, their societies are going through the same process.”

Added Ms. Bristo: “Disability is a great unifier. It doesn’t know country of origin. The experience of disability is to be treated differently, shunned, not empowered. But the disability experience is also one of resilience.”

To learn more about the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities or the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors:

United Nations, www.un.org/disabilities

U.S. International Council on Disabilities, www.usicd.org/conventionresources.html

By Tina Calabro, Post Gazzette, June 17, 2009

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