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Keynote Address: Pacific Islands Forum Disability Ministers' Meeting (2009)

Disability Disability Rights

Keynote Address: Pacific Islands Forum Disability Ministers' Meeting

Mr Graeme Innes AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner, Australia

Rarotonga, Cook Islands , 21-23 October 2009

Madam Chair, distinguished Ministers and other delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Imagine a visit to your local market? The noise of trading, the wonderful smells of fresh food, the multitude and variety of colours. It's at ground level, with wide passage ways, and John moves around easily, managing his stall. Rick throws a heavy box of fruit onto his shoulder and, after reading the stall number printed on the box, carries it to that stall. And Elizabeth enters stallholder permit details on her laptop, with an ear-piece in her ear. A society where people with disability are welcomed, and fully included. Where John is recognised as the friendly fruit stall owner, rather than the guy in the wheelchair. Rick is the helpful labourer, rather than the man who is deaf. And Elizabeth is the market clerk rather than a woman who is blind. None of our countries have achieved this market yet, but we will achieve that dream by working together, as we are doing at this meeting.

It's a great privilege to be part of such a significant meeting. I hope that it's just the first in a useful, creative, and exciting partnership between all countries involved.

And that's what I want to talk about today. The value of partnerships and communication in achieving that dream. Consulting with people with disability, and mainstreaming of disability concerns are vital to the successful promotion and protection of rights. And they are vital to achieving inclusive and sustainable communities- communities that include all of us, not just those without disabilities.

Before I continue, though, may I share some news with you. I was advised by text message in the middle of the night that there have been some changes on the expert committee administering the Convention, and Ron McCallum of Australia is now its new chair. Ron is a professor of industrial relations law who is highly regarded in Australia , and is a man with a disability. He visited the Cook Islands earlier this year. I think that this is great news for those of us living in Pacific countries.

One of my favourite quotes about human rights is from the great French jurist Rene Cassin, who said, during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

it would be deceiving the peoples of the world to let them think that a legal provision was all that was required...when in fact an entire social structure had to be transformed.

This is what the new United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities asks of all of us, asks of society, asks of our governments. Societal change.

The majority of people with disability in the world continue to live in poverty, experience discrimination, exclusion, abuse and prejudice. We are often treated as less than human.

The Convention asks all of us to shift from this way of thinking, and for all of us to take responsibility to remove the barriers that prevent people with disability from participating in our communities. The heart of the Convention is about everyone, equally being regarded with value, and treated with respect.

And in this sense the Convention does God's work. God loves us all as equal, viewing me as a person, not the fact that I can't see. God loves individuals functioning in society, not the fact that they use a wheelchair. It's society that has erected barriers- giving me material on a screen I cannot see, and constructing buildings and buses with steps. So the Convention urges us to bring our society closer to Gods view.

We heard yesterday, during the presentation of country statements, that many countries are taking active steps to progress disability issues. Many are using the Convention as their guide. The Cook Islands, New Zealand , Vanuatu and Australia have ratified the Convention. Solomon Islands and Tonga have already signed. And many others are taking practical actions. Later this morning, we'll be discussing the Pacific Regional Strategy on Disability. As it's linked to the principles of the Convention, the strategy provides a tool for progressing work on disability.

I congratulate the Governments and DPO's in these countries, and the region, for taking these steps, and recognising the strength and importance of this instrument, the first international Convention of the 21st Century.

Let me share an Australian practice with you. In Australia , we have a habit of shortening things. Our Deputy Minister, Robert, becomes ‘Bob', our outside cooking on the barbecue becomes a ‘barbie', and our glass of wine becomes a ‘chardie'. This has also happened to our convention. It started as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, changed to the Disability Convention, and is now known as the ‘DisCo'. I'm pleased with this, because it allows me to quote lines from my favourite songs - even Abba songs - in my speeches. But more importantly, for me it is evocative of the need to include people with disability in all areas of community life, even the Disco.

What happened before the DisCo? There was little in the way of effective human rights protection for people with disability. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights - fail to even mention disability among their prohibited grounds of discrimination, and required areas of protection.

The concept of "the charity model" for people viewed as disabled causes the maintenance of an unjust status quo, and makes us objects. In contrast, the "rights" model makes people with disability subjects, and members of the partnership. This does not mean that charity cannot occur, but it must have the purpose of achieving equality, and it must begin with consultation. Let me draw an analogy. If Minister McMullan from Australia told you that our aid dollars would only be spent on building igloos, because they were the best way to provide access for people with disability, then you would find that unacceptable. But when Minister McMullan negotiates with you as equals on how our aid might be spent, then we achieve sustainable improvements for people with disability.

By ratifying, and acting on, obligations in the DisCo, countries are acknowledging that - for people with disability - real barriers exist in society. And countries are taking action to address those barriers.

We all know that, for change to occur, it is not enough that a piece of paper exists. The Convention requires everyone to take an active role in the change. Governments, people with disability, donor agencies, DPO's, NGO's, your family, your friends, you and me.

One of the major ways to affect this change is simple. It's through the widespread practise of consultation.

The Convention is a first in the amount of consultation that occurred throughout its drafting. “Nothing About Us Without Us” was real. And the benefits gained were recognised by everyone--so much so that the requirement for consultation is an essential component of the Convention, not an optional extra.

Take Article 4, General Obligations. Article 4 (3) provides-

In the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the present Convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities, State Parties shall closely consult with, and actively involve, persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organisations.

By consulting with people, groups and organisations that have a stake in the outcome of actions taken under the Convention, more direct and effective change will occur.

People with disability, and our organisations, are in the best position to inform governments about the barriers we face. What is best for each country can only be determined through cooperation, consultation and communication. When we learn to talk to each other, and to those we are representing, we can understand how much progress is being made. Through constant consultation, we can understand when the goal posts have moved, and the barriers have shifted, and when a different approach is required.

By forming partnerships between Government, service providers and advocacy organisations, we learn together what rights are not being protected, what needs are most urgent, where are the gaps, what are the best solutions, what are the questions to ask and, more excitingly, when something is a success.

These successes can be shared with other groups, and other areas of government, replicated when appropriate, or learned from where necessary.

Perhaps in the future, this meeting could learn from the experience of countries which drafted the convention, and allow DPO's to speak at the end of each session.

Where should the Convention be implemented? It must be by all areas, and all levels, of government, because people with disability are all of us, and everywhere.

When I saw our meeting programme, I was concerned that both keynotes were from Australians. Whilst privileged to have the chance to speak, I felt this was perhaps not the best way to share cross-Pacific experiences.

So I'd like to show a couple of videos which demonstrate what can be achieved by the partnerships I've talked about. These videos were taken in Vanuatu during the first Australian Human Rights Commission's capacity building workshop for government representatives and people with disability. We are conducting these in nine Pacific countries with our project partner, the Pacific Disability Forum. The workshops are funded by AusAID.

We'll firstly hear and see Ms Dorosday Kenneth, Director, Department of Women's Affairs in Vanuatu .

Video Transcript:

Thank you for the opportunity to explain our working relationship with the DPO.

For us, the Department of Women's Affairs, working with the DPO has provided us opportunities to exchange ideas and dialogues in areas that generally affect women, and with special focus on disability.

Working as partners in the area of issues of women generally, and also in particular with disability, we are able to come up with policy issues and areas that we can collaborate, also working out strategies and action plans that in turn would allow Vanuatu Government to meet its obligations under the three Conventions: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Rights of Children, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in Vanuatu, the CEDAW.

With this relationship I am personally able to learn more, a lot, about what human rights is all about. Being new in this position, DPA has assisted me, and is assisting my office and me personally greatly, in understanding the general principles of human rights, how it is linked to democracy, parliamentary systems that happen in Government, also in our work in developing structures that would help the Vanuatu Government in meeting its obligations under the three Conventions that is housed under the Department of Women's Affairs here in Vanuatu.

We'll now see Ms Andonia Piau-Lynch, (Former) National Coordinator, Disability Promotion & Advocacy Association Vanuatu

Video Transcript:

I think the success of our organisation has been the partnership between DPA and Government and also valuing of our members. And when you value your members, they also value themselves, and are able to participate.

Working in partnership with both members of DPA and the families and the Government has meant that we are able to talk the same language and work together for a common cause.

So some of the things that we have achieved together over the last ten years include: the support and working together for Vanuatu to raise, or flag, the disability issue in 2001 at the Ministers for Education meeting in Fiji; talking or raising the issue of adopting the BMF at the Forum Heads of Government in Auckland in 2003; working together with the Forum Secretariat on disability policies in the Pacific in 2004; working together with the Ministry of Education now on the inclusive education policy; working together to include needs of persons with disabilities and assistive devices and accessibility with regards to the telecommunication submission; working together with Government in terms of developing the national disability policy and plan of action, which incorporates most of the priority areas of the BMF as well as some of the articles of the CRPAID; and now working with Government on the justice sector strategy and the social services sector to include the human rights of persons with disability and how do we work together to ensure that the rights contained in the Convention is addressed.

So these are some of the things that we have been able to work together over the last 7 to 8 years. And its this recognition that in order to move forward, you've got to have a partnership. DPA can't do it by itself, Government can't do it by itself, we need each other to work with it.

This co-operative approach is imperative to mainstreaming disability issues. Mainstreaming means that the needs and opinions of people with disability are taken into consideration - along with the needs and opinions of everyone else - in the preparation, implementation and supervision of all government, economic and community decisions, policies and approaches.

While it's necessary, and a great achievement, to have a national disability plan or strategy, all government departments, and all levels of government, must be familiar with its aims and directions. This must occur if we are to achieve change – the strategies and plans of all government departments at national, regional and local levels must always consider, and address, barriers for people with disability.

One example of mainstreaming is the education of children. If accessible building standards are included in school building policies, then the added costs of building a separate school would not be necessary. And the damage done by taking children with disability away from their family, and out of their community, would not occur.

Mainstreaming disability issues is one of the ultimate goals of the Convention.

If people with disability don't have equal opportunities to participate in, and contribute to, the activities of our nations, we abandon a sector of society, we disadvantage our families and communities, and we loose the abundant rewards that occur when an inclusive society is achieved. Let me take you back to that market we pictured when I began, and the vibrancy of an inclusive society.

We all know that there's a need for change- that's why we're all here. Learning to dance at the Pacific DisCo will take months or years, not minutes or hours. But - whether it's the Pacific Disco, or Cook Islands drums - let's keep our focus on the rhythm that we can achieve when that dance includes all of us.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.


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