By Miatta Gorvie
The term “persons with disabilities” is a capacious term indeed, intended to capture the realities of a huge array of people’s lives. Somehow, it refers to an amputee begging in downtown Kampala and a person with mental health challenges languishing in prison while awaiting bail in a prison up-country; a girl who was fortunate enough to have been sent to a school for the blind or deaf and another who was left at home because of the lack of access to schooling for children with developmental disabilities. Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities – Uganda (LAPD) provides free and sustainable legal aid and human rights protection to the members of any and all of these communities of persons with disabilities (PWDs).
Access to justice for Uganda’s disabled is hindered at many turns. First and foremost is the fact that they are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty, as a result of systemic barriers to education and employment. There is no government assistance available for the disabled and so those who cannot work are dependent on family to fulfil their needs; the least fortunate are those that you see dotting the streets, begging for the goodwill of strangers. Even those who do have the resources to bring their cases to court will often be confronted by justice sector officials who do not understand the particularities of the lives of PWDs.
Uganda has a relatively robust disabilities rights regime, in terms of legislation. Not only has Uganda signed on to the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, it has also domesticated it’s commitment with provisions in its 1995 Constitution and the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2006, among other acts and policies. However, while the legal instruments are in place, in substance they are often minimalist and incomprehensive.
This legislation is a great achievement for a poor country with an unconsolidated democracy, but laws are only part of the question of achieving dignity for PWDs. Disability rights, perhaps more than many others, is a fertile testing ground for the balancing of rights and other priorities. Indeed, the term “reasonable accommodation,” which has recently been extended to the question of multiculturalism in Quebec, finds its origins in the disability literature. Reasonable accommodation is the idea that “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case” should be made to ensure that PWDs enjoy their rights and freedoms on an equal basis with others. For example in employment, should an employee with a physical disability need a different chair from the model used in the office, it would be considered unreasonable for the person to lose their job over the purchase of a chair and the employer is legally required to make the adjustment.
Disability rights are constantly framed as being in competition with resources. In a developing economy like Uganda, what can it mean for children with disabilities to have the right to public education, the same public education system that can barely pay its teachers or supply learning materials? While the problems are much more visible here, this is hardly a problem reserved to poor countries.
This spring, I travelled to Ottawa with a group of McGill students to hear the opening arguments for the Moore case. As a boy, Jeffrey Moore suffered from severe dyslexia but was able to participate in the public school system because the division had a program for students with his particular needs. When this program was cut for budgetary reasons, his father was forced to place him in a private school, at great cost, and he sued the BC government for what he perceives as an undue hardship. In the opening arguments, the province submitted that Jeffrey should not be compared to other students in the public school system but other special needs students in the system. Framed that way, Jeffrey and all other students with intellectual disabilities were given an equal opportunity to access a “general education.” Moore was seeking an accommodation to access the mainstream service whereas the government defined his request as a specialized education service. Embarrassingly, the province also claimed that there is no right for a student to learn how to read, because even public school students without disabilities have difficulty reading.
When a G-8 country shrugs at disability rights under the guise of “budgetary constraints,” the prospects for PWDs in the developing world seem dire. The dominant discourse reflects the way in which disability rights are still seen as second-tier rights or aspirations that will come to fruition at some uncertain point in the future when scarce resources are no longer an issue. McGill’s Frédéric Mégret has considered whether the CRPD simply affirms the idea that existing human rights apply to PWDs and reformulates existing human rights to acknowledge the particularities of PWDs’ experiences, or whether it actually goes as far as to extend existing rights and innovate so far as to create new rights with the realities of the disabled at their core. He finds the Convention to be a “very subtle mix of the old and the new, which confirms existing rights, even as it amplified upon, evolves from and departs from them in the sort of creative ways required by the issue of disability.”
I agree with Professor Mégret’s proposition, that the CRPD was an opportunity to make a statement about difference and pluralism, often thought of as running contrary to the universalism and equality inherent in the human rights project. However, I took on this internship partly as a challenge, to step out of the safe spaces of seminar courses and panel discussions and consider what “human rights” can possibly mean in the field. Therefore, as a result of my experiences doing legal aid for PWDs with LAPD this summer, I must reluctantly endorse the pedantic view of the Convention that the professor rejects, the one that considers the document to be an affirmation of restatement of the applicability of existing human rights to PWDs.
When faced with politicians and judges who already see rights for PWDs as “other” and as something to be addressed only after rights for the majority have been dealt with, it is not helpful for an advocate to make an argument about newness and plurality. It is likely preferable to submit that PWDs have the same general human right to education and that their requests for inclusion are only accommodations and not brand new rights. Would this framing not make it much easier to refute the “budgetary constraints” argument? It seems to me that when dealing with few resources and little audience time with decision-makers, the pragmatic route might be the most effective.
 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 2, http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=262.