Saturday, December 3, 2011

Austerity cuts must not destabilise progress made on Disability Rights

by Mary Keogh

As International Disability Rights Day for 2011 fast approaches, there is no doubt that since its establishment in 1980's, there has been significant progress made on disability rights. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the Convention) most notably, creates a paradigm shift from viewing people with disabilities from a charitable perspective to the one of rights and inclusion. Along with the legal developments, other examples of progress include the recognition that disability is integral to international poverty initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals.

However, this progress now faces the most serious of challenges as austerity measures are implemented across a number of countries, particularly in Europe.  This blog takes a look at the challenges ahead in the implementation of the Convention particularly in the face of declining public expenditure by governments. For these governments and the Convention in general, there are a number of questions that now must be asked.

Firstly, as austerity measures continue to be implemented - are countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons now in danger of falling short in implementing even its most basic provisions? Indeed, to go one step further, could they be accused of taking retrogressive actions with regard to the commitments that they agreed to.  Secondly, is the media and political commentary surrounding the austerity cuts undermining the important sentiments of the Convention, which calls for the recognition of the capabilities and contributions that disabled citizens can make?  Finally, could the austerity measures have the potential to destabilise partnerships that have been built up since the adoption of the CRPD between international disability community and their respective governments?

This blog addresses the above questions in an effort to tease out the challenges that lie ahead for the effective implementation of the CRPD.

(a) Potential Impact of austerity on the implementation of the CRPD. It is widely documented that people with disabilities are among the poorest in every country. Lack of access to education and employment opportunities, lack of awareness on the part of employers about disabled people’s abilities renders a significant majority reliant on social protection provided by their governments. In times of recessions and downturns, then, this protection comes under threat, as government attempt to balance budgets by shaving off large items of expenditure. These large item savings are traditionally found within the health, education and social protection budgets.

The evidence to-date shows us that at a broad level, the austerity cuts underway across many countries, most notably in Europe create a threat to the realization of the general principles of the CRPD.  These principles include respect for inherent dignity, full and effective participation and inclusion in society, and non-discrimination. Within formal and informal media channels, we are witnessing daily stories of people with disabilities having basic services removed, leaving them dependent on family and informal care and in many cases isolated from their community. A UK campaigner recently commented “social services and aid - which make a difficult life more bearable or in some cases simply liveable - have been sharply cut back”.  These stories clearly demonstrate the fear and frustration that is facing many disabled people. The gains made by the disability movement over the years while times were good are now slowly being eroded by government cutbacks in public expenditure. This is particularly the case for programmes that support independent living, which is fundamental to the daily lives of so many disabled people.

While, some might consider the general principles of the CRPD as what we aspire to, there is a very real fear that the austerity measures have the potential to infringe on the specific, or practical rights contained in the CRPD. These rights include the right to social protection (Article 28), the right to live independently in the community (Article 19) the right to mobility (Article 20). The European Disability Forum Observatory is currently compiling data from across Europe on the impact of the cutbacks; see here for further details. The data they have collected could be argued demonstrates how the specific rights outlined above face an increasingly uphill battle in being implemented and in some cases are under threat of elimination. For example, it outlines a variety of ways the austerity cuts are affecting people with disabilities, including cuts in social protection, being obliged to massive reassessments of disability status and an overall reduction in services. The report gives examples of how countries such as the UK and the Netherlands have cut their supports for day-to-day living and personal budget schemes, which enable people with disabilities to live independently. Additionally, it pointed out how a recent decision by Spain to reduce supported employment for those with intellectual disabilities in could see up to 12,000 such jobs being lost.

(b) Negative stereotyping of people with disabilities. While, the austerity measures are creating real hardship in the lives of people with disabilities. It could also be argued that they are also contributing to negative stereotyping of people with disabilities. The language and subtle messaging of describing disabled citizens as ‘expenditure items’ or as a ‘drain on economic efforts’ further contributes to the stigmatization of disabled persons.

The Convention includes a stand-alone article on the need for awareness raising on disability based on respect, dignity and human rights (Article 8). One of the reasons for its inclusion was the strong case made by the international disability community for the need to great positive perceptions of the capabilities and contributions that all people with disabilities have. Article 8 requires that actions be taken to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities. It particularly asks that the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities be highlighted. In particular, it encourages the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present Convention.

The implementation of the provision of this article is currently facing major challenges as a result of the media and political commentary on the austerity measures. For example, the words ‘needy’ and ‘living pitiful lives’ feature regularly as descriptions of people with disabilities. They even feature within the disability community discourse as organisations compete and make their cases of who is the most worthy for continued funding in this resource limited climate. Additionally, during recessionary times, the area of benefit fraud is one of the first to be highlighted. While is it absolutely correct to identify the perpetrators of fraud, it could be argued that how the media reports on it can further contribute to the stigmatization people with disabilities who have genuine claims. See here. The calling into question of the validity of all welfare claims further re-enforces the need for disabled people to prove they are disabled and ‘incapable of work’ or ‘less productive’ therefore feeding into the continuing stereotypes of people with disabilities not being productive citizens.

What is a particular worry in terms of implementing Article 8 is that it is not considered to be big expenditure item, especially if you compare it to creating access to education or healthcare. Rather, it requires a series of mindful interventions at media and political level to highlight the positive contributions disabled people can make. However, the current interventions surrounding the austerity measures tell us more about much it costs the government to fund services for a disabled person or how much it costs to provide social protection. What it doesn’t tell us is how investment in services enables disabled citizens to take up education and employment opportunities and live positive lives.

(c) Stability of partnerships between governments and the international disability community. Finally then, the question has to be asked, have the austerity measures the potential to destabilise relationships between government and civil society? So, for example, how will the partnerships formed and the collaborative ways of working that featured predominantly during the Conventions negotiations be affected? The process, which led to the creation of the Convention, has been widely hailed as one of the most inclusive.  Involving in particular the representative organisations of disabled people. Indeed it can be argued that even after the Convention negotiations were completed, government and disability organisations continue to liase on the important issues of the Convention. For example, every year, both governments and representatives of the international disability community come together for the Conference of State Parties. At this event, information is shared and strategies are discussed on progressing the implementation of the Convention.

The very real issue now is that many of the governments who have been in attendance at these meetings are the same governments who are now implementing the cutbacks in disability protections and services. This presents a real challenge going forward as many of the same disability rights organisations are now also leading the charge against austerity cuts and de facto against their governments.

So, the questions we are left with are, how can all of these competing tensions be resolved? How can the implementation of the Convention be protected in the face of austerity cuts? The challenge now is what response the international disability and its allies mount.

First of all, we must remember that the Convention sees a role for everyone to play in implementing its provisions. Some of its provisions look for committed financial investment by governments, which for the moment are unlikely. Some of them require innovative thinking from disability organisations on creating solutions for the big challenges we now face. This we must remember has been done before and can be done again. Some of them provide the space for disability representative organisations to vent their anger and their dismay, as is their right to do so.

Most importantly the Convention has provided opportunities for disability organisations to forge relationships with key allies at decision-making level, this must continue. Finally, people with disabilities and their families must play the biggest role by actively taking part in and influencing the places where decisions are made that affect their lives.