Monday, March 05, 2012

Disability Rights and the Heart of Human Rights


The Following is a Guest Post by Deborah Stienstra, Professor of Disability Studies at University of Manitoba

On February 10, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a women with intellectual disabilities could testify on her own behalf as the victim in a case of sexual assault. By a majority vote, the Court agreed that she understood what it meant to tell the truth even though she could not articulate what truth was. She and many other women and men with disabilities challenge society to extend our understandings of individual human rights, personhood and autonomy. In this ruling we are taught that courts need to recognize that the competence required to bear witness to one’s own experience is something those often labeled ‘not competent’ have. We are also taught about the importance of disability rights. Disability rights take us beyond simple assertions that individuals in their differences need to be accommodated. While accommodation and removing barriers to women and men with disabilities in society are important steps to ensuring inclusion, disability rights require us to go beyond inclusion to transformation of ourselves and our societies.

Disability takes us to the heart of humanity and human rights. How can human rights be available to those who cannot speak, cannot move their bodies without supports, and need assistance for every aspect of human life? How do societies reflect the diversity of human bodies and ways of doing things? How do human rights move from including people with disabilities into able-bodied societies towards transformed societies that enable multiple ways of doing things, all of which are part of humanity?


In a just-published book, About Canada: Disability Rights, I argue that including people with disabilities fully in Canadian society, with the rights enjoyed by non-disabled Canadians, requires social transformation, not simply “fixing” some bodies or making some adaptations. It requires all people to recognize and redress attitudes, cultural images and policies that make people with disabilities invisible, set them aside in institutions, undermine or reject their contributions and value, and justify their neglect, abuse and death. It also calls upon each person to appreciate the possibilities of living a rich and complex life with disabilities, the liberating benefits of the right supports, the ways in which we all belong and the importance of relationships and caring for all in society. It involves the simple recognition and honouring of the dignity, autonomy and rights of all people, including those who experience disabilities.

When we equate the differences of disabilities with negative or undesirable experiences, we reduce people with disabilities to lesser citizens. But when we recognize the diversity of humanity that disability and impairment illustrate, we reject the fantasy that able-bodied people are “whole,” “invulnerable” or “normal.” Instead, we recognize a diverse and complex humanity with many forms of bodies, including bodies with impairments. This rich version of humanity allows us to see people with disabilities as full of possibilities and potential.

In asserting the diversity of humanity, people with disabilities expand our understanding of humanity, including variations that require the support of aids and devices or of a community. In declaring their independence and competence, including to bear witness to their own experiences, people with disabilities give models to all Canadians about ensuring our voices are heard, our needs are met and our contributions are valued and respected.


Deborah Stienstra is Professor of Disability Studies at University of Manitoba and author of About Canada: Disability Rights (Fernwood, 2012). 

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