Human Rights are one of the most remarkable achievements of civilization.
Held today in the highest regard by billions of people worldwide, and enshrined in global documents and conventions as well as in national and local laws and policies, nonetheless we are far from a point where we can take such rights for granted or expect that they will be universally observed. Further, we know from the past that Human Rights can take not only decades but centuries from the time that activists first put them forward to the time when they are ultimately accepted and begin to thrive.
One obvious example is slavery, where abolitionism was a key element of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Yet it took another hundred years and an American Civil War for the right of every person to be free – at least in the industrialized nations of that time. And yet the struggle is still not entirely over, considering reports about human trafficking, forced prostitution, and child labour.
Another example is gender equality, where Suffragettes first appeared in early nineteen century, but did not win the right to vote until a century later – in Australia in 1902,in Finland (the first in Europe) in 1906.
A visionary thought: Arguably, the nineteenth century was the age of freedom, and the twentieth century the age of gender equality. Might, then, the twenty-first century be the age of persons with disabilities?
There are numerous historic parallels among these three great rights movement that support such a vision.
In the early nineteenth century the world witnessed landmark achievements towards the right for freedom for all. Whereas slavery was not addressed by the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776, and perhaps even more astonishing not in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution of 1789, in the Vienna Congress of 1815 slave trade was condemned for the first time in a major and binding international treaty. In 1833, England was the first of the superpowers of the age to abolished slavery, with the French colonies following in 1848.
Similarly, the twentieth century began with a ground-breaking paradigm shift in the rights of women. After the First World War I, during which the women in all countries involved in the war worked at the jobs and machines that their men had left behind, it was unthinkable to return to the former social order. Consequently, full and equal voting rights were granted to women in Germany and Austria in 1919.
And, yes, the twenty-first century began with a breakthrough in the rights of persons with disabilities – the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – adopted in December 2006. Almost 10 years later, the UN CRPD has not only been ratified by 160 countries, it has proven to be a major catalyst to the global disabilities movement, providing a unified set of goals and a monitoring mechanism that has already had a clear impact on policy-making.
Or course, as with all great progressive movements, the Human Rights campaigners are always fighting uphill, and the path is riddled with such difficult roadblocks as ignorance, vested interests, harmful traditions, and hidden political and business agendas.
Major victories can be won when discriminating legislation is replaced by a just one. Or when the numbers of children in inclusive schools and employees with disabilities in the open labour market increase. But Human Rights are not set goals. They are moving targets, and so the quest to achieve equality for persons with disabilities will continue to be an uphill struggle for many decades to come.
That may sound uncomfortable, but it is true for every civil right. Civilizations are evolving, and so are the concepts of justice and equality – of Human Rights. The rights of persons with disabilities are gaining ground worldwide. They have started to enter mainstream decision and policy-making in many countries, and are increasingly discussed in popular media. Great concepts such as accessibility, inclusion, and Universal Design have been created and are increasingly used outside the closed circles of disability activists as well.
And that is excellent news.