The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) is an international NGO which is made up of 125 national organizations of Deaf people and many affiliated organizations in 125 countries and 8 regional secretariats. WFD holds consultative status within the United Nations and is one of seven member organizations of the International Disability Alliance (IDA). WFD represents over 70 million Deaf people of all ages. The purpose of the WFD is to educate and advocate for human rights and dignity for all Deaf people, including equality of opportunity for access, communications, education, employment, quality life and full acceptance of Deaf people with unlimited potential to contribute to society as independent, self-determining and actualizing individuals and communities. Towards these goals, WFD provides advocacy, training, materials and position papers.
This position paper focuses on the urgent need for a United Nations Convention on Human Rights of People with Disabilities.
l. Definition of Disability and Deaf People
The definition should be kept simple and broad. It should be defined by and acceptable to people with disabilities as an approximation of our lived reality. The medical model and diagnoses focus on deficits, not strengths and abilities. The definition must reflect the social understanding and relationships of disability to one's environment, which has diverse variations based on region, country, culture, language, time and so forth. To define too specifically may be to limit.
Deafness is an invisible disability; it is not until communication and access barriers arise that deafness manifests itself. Due to such barriers, Deaf people can go anywhere and see the hustle-bustle of life but not access information and meanings. Thus deaf people may be deprived of full participation even though physically present. Deaf people are members of both the disability community and a linguistic-cultural minority group. Sign language, a visual language, is an essential need and human right for Deaf people, and is recognized by the United Nations as such.
2. General Situation for Deaf People
Deaf people essentially perceive the world through their eyes for the purpose of access to information and communication exchanges. Within an enabling environment where barriers are absent, where full communication exists from Day 1, Deaf people are capable of functioning independently and attaining quality life skills.
However, this environment is not the case. Human rights are violated for Deaf people daily. Deaf people experience much discrimination. Access to education and employment are either absent or minimal. 80% of Deaf people lack education or are undereducated, are illiterate or semi-literate. Sign language is banned in many countries and programs. Families are unnecessarily burdened by perceived stigmas and are not provided with information needed to ensure successful parenting skills with deaf children. Professionals providing educational and community services often cannot communicate with Deaf students and people, let alone grasp their needs and potential. Qualified sign language interpreters and technological assistance such as captioned media, which enhance accessibility, are woefully inadequate or absent. Thus, without access to language and information, full involvement and participation in life and life functions are seriously curtailed.
3. Importance of a Convention on Human Rights for People with Disabilities
Human rights, in theory and practice, must be universal and applicable to all people. A convention on human rights of people with disabilities is urgently needed in order to ensure that this population is legally covered by the Declaration of Human Rights that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The convention must be on the same level with the six must important UN human rights treaties. It should use multi-track approaches and other extant documents protecting the rights of people with disabilities, including the World Programme for Action, the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for People with Disabilities and other documents.
The procedures utilized to develop this proposed convention should be similar to those used for other conventions. The process and product must be based on the active input of people with disabilities and their organizations. It should be clear that the states and UN agencies are expected to fully support the concept and principles of this convention in ensuring that people with disabilities are respected, empowered, self-determining and self-represented. The doctrine of "Nothing about us without us" should be applicable; meaningful partnerships with and among the different groups and stakeholders must be built into the process.
Full access should be provided for all participants. Participants in the Ad Hoc Committee and meetings should have access to sign language interpreters and technological support (such as captioned media) to enhance accessibility for all.
5. Principles that the Convention Must Embody
The convention must convey that human rights are universal and applicable to all people, including people with disabilities, from womb to tomb. In this regard, this convention supplements all the other core conventions while addressing people with disabilities as a discreet population. It must ensure the right to respect, dignity, self-representation, determination, and independence to make one's own choices and decisions.
Fundamentally, the convention must ensure people with disabilities the right to live and the right to good life quality. The convention must ensure full and equal access for all to interpersonal and social involvement in an enhancing environment. This includes quality access to language, information, communications, education, community and state services, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, employment, qualified service providers such as interpreters and captioners, and technological advances.
Moreover, the convention must recognize that deaf people are a linguistic minority and have the right to their indigenous sign language and culture. "People who are deprived of linguistic human rights may thereby be prevented from enjoying other human rights, including fair political representation, a fair trial, access to education, access to information and freedom of speech, and maintenance of their cultural heritage." (Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas) Education for Deaf students should take into consideration Article 21 in the UNESCO Salamanca Statement, which states that Deaf children have the right to obtain education in their own language, sign language.
In order to ensure the rights of Deaf people as both disabled people and a linguistic minority, sign language must be recognized, respected and taught in all the countries. Sign language interpreters must be trained and utilized in each country. Without interpreters, one's access, freedom of speech, self-representation and ability to participate in the vital functions of community life as citizens are seriously proscribed. Captioned media and other technological advances can help to close the digital divide for Deaf people and ensure they, too, have full access to information and knowledge readily available to all.
6. Monitoring Mechanism
WFD supports the infusion of a monitoring mechanism similar to that for the existing six core Human Rights Treaties (especially CEDAW and CRC.) This includes state reports, complaint procedures, NGO involvement, and investigation powers of the treaty monitoring body. Moreover, the monitoring process should include the Special Rapporteur and a panel of experts including those who are themselves disabled.
The World Federation of the Deaf would like to conclude this position paper with a quote from WFD President, Dr. Liisa Kauppinen:
"A community good for disabled people is a great society for ALL people."