2.2 Session on “Disability and Human Rights: Issues of Access and Attitudes”

Deborah Stienstra, Lynda Katsuno, Patty Douglas, Tom Reynolds

This panel will discuss issues raised in linking human rights discourse with matters of disability.  For example, in 2006 the United Nations adopted the "Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities," later ratified in 2008.  The objective of the Convention is to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms by all people with disabilities, including children.  Canada has ratified the convention and is currently preparing its initial report to the UN Committee, due in April 2012.  But what is a "right" and "freedom" vis-à-vis disability?  How is "equality" between all persons—disabled and non-disabled—to be understood and lived out in a Canadian context?

The panelists explored the continuing challenges in the experiences of persons with disability, especially as these arise in relation to issues of physical access and socio-cultural attitudes. All the presenters told poignant and instructive stories from their own associations with disability in the lives of their close families, as the context for their involvement with these questions. Deborah Stienstra, Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Manitoba, opened the panel proceedings with an account of both the gains and the ongoing struggles faced by the community (especially in Canada) on both those counts. She pointed out that issues of access can only be dealt with satisfactorily when people have a deeper understanding of disability and its place in the mainstream. Encounters with disability often lead to a characterization of disabled persons as the “them” who are not “us,” she said, but reiterated that such a simple reduction must be constantly challenged by the fact that even “normal” bodies require all kinds of accommodation. We need to recognize that disability is a part of being human, she told the group – “they” teach “us” to create a better world for all. 

Patty Douglas drew on her experiences as a teacher in special education to build on Stienstra’s emphasis. She spoke about disability justice as something that cannot be approached well as long as social and political equality and inclusion is granted on the one hand, while disability is itself excluded from normative conceptions of personhood and participation. We must be prepared to go beyond (the undeniably important) provision of access and sympathetic attitudes in the mainstream, on towards an active, even “impossible” disposition of desiring the difference as a human good, she said, envisioning the welcome of disability as “a perpetually unsettled and unsettling matter of hearts, homes, and communities rooted in relationality, reflexivity, and care.” 

Lynda Katsuno described her work with the World Council of Churches around various projects including its ecumenical disability program, and noted that disability continues to remain a depressingly low priority for most churches. Tom Reynolds, Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College spoke of the possibility of letting disability serve as an occasion to reevaluate what human flourishing is. He introduced the language of the gift as a way of re-imagining the interruptive and disruptive potentialities of disability in the troubling but positively transformative experience of an opportunity – to learn attention and develop an ethos of care. The Q&A session drew responses from a number of participants who expressed their own struggles and fears in dealing with their own disabilities or in encountering those of others.

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