Reflections by a participant of the Disability Rights in an African Context short course hosted by the Centre for Human Rights from the 13-17 March 2017
As I skimmed through the programme for the short course “Disability Rights in an African context” last week, the varied themes on the agenda conjured up the prospect of five days of enlightening discussions and profound reflection. On Monday, as I made my way to the classroom, several thoughts flashed through my mind: that of my late grandmother’s dread for the wheelchair after she underwent a partial foot amputation, that of the bullying of my autistic friend in primary school and the account of my parent’s agony on learning of my diagnosis of severe clubfoot at birth. During the introductory session, whilst the participants shared their interest in and expectations from the course and invoked disturbing details about disability abuse in their respective countries, the enduring obstacles to furthering disability rights across Africa dawned on me. The dearth of visibility of disability – disability being somewhat shunned in my home country Mauritius - had probably clouded my appreciation of the magnitude of the challenges lying ahead. Professor Ngwena’s words echoed, setting the tone for the week: we should look beyond the letter of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and seek to address the implementation gap in the continent.
The week proved to be a stimulating and revealing odyssey in time and space: the presentations traced the historical beginnings and progress of the disability rights movement whilst interactions within the classroom- bringing together participants from various fields, ranging from prosecutors and school teachers to nurses and scholars- brought to the fore diverse perspectives on disability rights issues from different jurisdictions and cultures. Issues sometimes caused contention and consternation, notably the potential merits of institutionalisation, the integration of children with disabilities into ‘mainstream’ schools, the sterilisation of girls with intellectual disabilities or the proposition to allow persons with psychosocial disabilities to run for elections. The presentations suggested solutions and provided answers. Professor Dinerstein’s overview of the American Disabilities Act and the model of supported decision-making represented inspiring examples of furthering disability rights in national frameworks for African countries. Dr Msipa’s case studies on accommodations within the courtroom were eye-opening for criminal justice practitioners. The presentations also demystified and provided insight. Dr Paul Chappell rejected the fallacy of separating disability and sexuality. However, above all, the presentations and discussions were all interrogative, provocative and moving. Recurring themes came through in discussions: the link between religion or culture and disability, the latter being often perceived as a curse and subject to ‘treatment’ in religious institutions. The constant tensions and occasional overlap between the medical and social model evoke notions of vulnerability, empowerment, environment and diversity. Also, the question reverberated time and again: does the onus for change lie merely with States or rather society, communities, families, individuals?