The Dynamics of Member States

Photo by Joseph Abua

The United Nations held its 12th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, CRPD, between 11th to 13th June 2019. I recently got a graduate assistantship position with the Institute of Human Rights UAB and I was selected as one of the rapporteurs from the institute to attend this prestigious event. Despite being new to the institute, I could not have asked for a better start than going to the United Nations Headquarters, not as a visitor, but a note taker in one of the round table discussions of member states. Although on several occasions, I have always dreamed of visiting the UN Headquarters, yet, I never imagined I would be graced with such an opportunity to experience the spectacle and majesty of the UN as a rapporteur. This has made me realize there is never a dream too big to achieve as all we need to make it a reality lies in our will. 

The United Nations serves as an international framework where the world comes together to identify various challenges, share resolutive ideas, discuss developmental strategies and initiatives, and form stronger alliances. The Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability serves as one of the platforms that ensure the needs of Persons with Disability (PWD) are adequately met and catered for. This year’s theme focused on improving and increasing accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities into all spheres of the society by ensuring utmost respect to the rights of PWD at all levels. Recent evidence suggests that by developing new and improving existing technological, digitized and ICT oriented innovations, it will better aid and assist PWD and increase their accessibility. Another fundamental area involves promoting social inclusion for PWD, by ensuring their access to the highest level of healthcare services and extensive participation in the cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sporting activities within the society.

Coming from a third-world region, Africa remains in constant need of evidence-based initiatives and mechanisms that will aid her in achieving sustainable growth and development at all levels. Over the years, the continent has continuously experienced several cases of inefficiencies at all levels, with little or no evidence of improvement being recorded. One issue that constitutes a major area of concern is the rights of Persons with Disability. PWD are faced with the worst situations you can ever imagine in most African communities. Despite the strong traditional and cultural heritage Africa possesses which constitutes part of the continent’s beauty and charm, it also serves as a curse especially to PWD. There exist different myths, beliefs, customs and misconceptions that negatively affect PWD till date because some traditions and beliefs cannot be abolished. In some cultures, families with PWD (blind, deaf, dumb and cripple most especially) often use their disability as an avenue to beg for alms, while in other cultures, families with PWD are believed to be cursed by the gods or unfortunate which often leads to the entire family being discriminated and treated as outcasts in the community. Other cultures consider specific disabilities such as cripples and hunchbacks, as items for rituals and sacrifices of all sorts.

Photo by Joseph Abua

Although several steps have been taken by various African governments to eradicate these ridiculous myths and beliefs, more needs to be done in ensuring PWD live normal and meaningful lives like others. One major area of concern that limits PWD in Africa is the poor social and political accessibility and inclusion. During the 3rd round table discussion, several member states discussed anticipated and already existing initiatives and programs that will/already include PWDs, and how they plan to sustain such developments. A few that caught my attention was the discussion by the representative of Zambia, Honorable Olipa Makiloni Phiri Mwansa, who spoke about new legislation known as the Zambia Disability Act which assists the nation to develop in-depth demographic characteristics of PWD. The Sri Lanka representative, His Excellence, Dr. Rohan Perera, spoke about the level the nation has gone in ensuring the successful implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan for PWD by embedding the “Foundation for Inclusion of PWD” into the nation’s constitution. Morocco’s representative, Ambassador Omar Hilale on the other hand, discussed a framework already being implemented, which strictly focuses on providing vocational training for PWD in vulnerable communities to increase their social inclusion. One nation that has fundamentally developed its accessibility and inclusion rate in Mexico. Her representative discussed the 2018 general elections which were considered the most inclusive election in the country’s history as it ensured PWD had easy access to polling units and were also among the electoral officials during the entire election process. 

In terms of challenges faced by some member states, the Republic of Ireland representative gave an extensive remark about how several nation-states government and public sector is not adequately and structurally designed to meet the needs and demands of PWD and such inefficiency issues need to be addressed by the UN. Also, the first panelist, Ms. Tytti Matsinen (Disability Inclusion Adviser, Finland), spoke about how several communities presently have poor access to standard technologies which further increases the marginalization of PWD. She advocates that individuals, agencies, and organizations who are outside the job market be integrated into making assistive technological innovations for PWD more available and accessible. Finally, the Association for Deaf People (NGO) elaborated the need for parties and agencies to collaborate with PWD when developing technological and ICT programs and products because they possess a good degree of knowledge of their condition. 

This Conference made me understand how much effort the United Nation renders in ensuring member states achieve their desired growth at all levels, but more needs to be done in ensuring certain developmental policies, initiatives, and action plans are efficiently carried out by her members. The CRPD Committee representative spoke about how several member states failed to adopt the Public Procurement Policy which was structured at all levels to achieve greater accessibility standard for PWD. Although he condemned the attitudes of such states, he advised the UN to put in biding sanctions to member states that fail in this regard. At the close of the session, there was a resounding echo of relief by representatives of all member states, each having given meaningful insights and recommendations to various challenges faced at national and international levels. 

I am fortunate to have been selected to attend the conference, especially as a rapporteur in one of the round table sessions alongside several other side events which I may write about in subsequent blogs. Based on my love for policy and advocacy, it truly was a learning process and a developmental experience for me and I would like to appreciate the wonderful Dr. Tina Reuter and the Institute of Human Rights, UAB, for giving me this opportunity to see the world at large. I really had a wonderful experience and I am looking forward to many more field trips as this, and I will always be open in assisting and representing the institute at all levels.

Old Habits Die Hard: The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Ageism

Most of us have been told at some point to respect our elders. Opening doors, assisting in street transit, carrying groceries — all of these social niceties are expected to be paid specifically to older members of society. Respect for elders seems to occur universally as a cultural norm. Korean culture joyfully celebrates the one’s sixtieth birthday as the passage into old age, while honorific suffixes such as “-ji” in Hindi and “mzee” in Swahili indicate longstanding cultural respect for one’s elders. Some Ecuadorian cultures believe that their elder shamans, or mengatoi, become powerfully magical as they age (Jacobs). China even made it illegal to neglect one’s parents, outlining the legal duties of adult children to include frequent visitation and “occasional greetings” (Wong). Older people in America engage in vigorous self-advocacy, making the AARP one of the largest interest groups in the nation at nearly forty million members.

Happy Parishioners. Source: Joonas Tikkanen, Creative Commons.

So why then does society reflect the exact opposite of these norms? Old people are treated as feeble, unfortunate beings who are shown courtesy in public and yet face widespread discrimination. Both pernicious and insidious, ageism is defined as “the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age; [forms of ageism can include] prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs” (World Health Organization). Ageism is an “ism” that is just as socially impactful as other forms of discrimination, yet the topic is rarely addressed and often disregarded. Despite lack of discursive engagement, ageism is a unique type of social discrimination in that it can transcend all other human identities. The process of aging affects every human being regardless of one’s sexuality, race, and political ideology. Most of us will eventually pass the cursed line that society demarcates between youth and old age and must suffer from the hostile, deeply discriminatory system that we ourselves once benefited from in our youth — and what a pervasive system it is. Surveys show that a whopping 80% of people over sixty have experienced some form of ageism (Dittman). Tad Friend supplies this neatly unpacked explanation in an article published by the New Yorker:

Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other based on a perceived difference. But ageism is singular, because it’s directed at a group that at one point wasn’t the Other—and at a group that the ageist will one day, if all goes well, join. The ageist thus insults his own future self.”

The Long Road. Source: Hansel and Regrettal, Creative Commons.

In just two years, it is predicted that more people will be over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five for the first time in Earth’s history (United States Census Bureau). In fact, according to the United Nations, the number of older persons is increasing more rapidly than other age group. This phenomenon is known as the “graying” of a population, and constitutes an urgent issue for affected countries. As people age, they become less able to physically care for themselves and usually exit the workforce at some point to retire for the latter part of their lives. As health conditions do generally worsen with age, the demand for medical and/or personal support services grows as older people continue to age and retire.

This becomes an issue when the size of a country’s workforce becomes insufficient to fill the demands of service-dependant older people. In nations with large workforces, the opposite issue — lack of opportunity for employment — still disproportionately harms older people. Many industries, particularly in America, push out older applicants and terminate veteran employees in favor of younger options. As industry culture has begun to tilt in favor of youth, older people have experienced a massive amount of workplace ageism. Nearly 65% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 60 had either seen or experienced age-based discrimination in the workplace (AARP). This may seem like a trivial issue, but unemployment is a dangerous state to endure at advanced ages. Worsening health conditions go hand in hand with both lower income and increased age; the combination of these factors can be fatal.

An elderly Sudanese womangets ready to receive her ration of emergency food aid.
Elderly Woman Receives Emergency Food Aid. Source: Tim McKulka/UN Photo, Creative Commons.

So why does ageism even exist? Princeton researchers found that most ageist arguments stem from issues with consumption (old people already consume too many scarce resources), identity (old people try to act younger than they are), or succession (old people had their turn, now they should move out of the workforce/society to make space for the new generation). All of these issues — consumption, identity, and succession — frame humanity in a way that associates one’s value with their usefulness to society. However, human beings should not be defined by their utility. Simply put, old people exist. They form one of the largest populations on the planet, and are rapidly growing. We cannot deny older people the dignity that we (supposedly) award to all else simply because they are perceived as “useless” to society. Human rights cannot and should not be applied conditionally.

This unfortunate phenomenon is surrounded by the related topic of disability. According to the 2016 Disability Statistics Annual Report, 35.4% of Americans over the age of 65 had a disability, which is over three times higher than the rate of working-age (18-64) Americans at 10.4%. Like advanced age, disability is also perceived as a barrier to social utility. Age and disability together form a potent one-two punch of compound discrimination, making older people with disabilities extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

An old woman sits at a window next to a yellow flower in a vase.
Untitled. Source: Bas Bogers, Creative Commons.

Elder abuse, as it is termed, is widespread but often under-reported. National rates are reported to be around 10%, though researchers at the prominent New York Elder Prevention Society found self-reported rates of elder abuse to be up to 24 times higher than the documented rate. Only 3% of  older people in New York officially reported any form of elder abuse, though nearly three-quarters self-reported that they have experienced neglect or financial, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. This number may be inflated by the instances where individuals experience multiple types of abuse, making exact numbers more difficult to isolate. The most common forms of elder abuse are financial and physical/sexual abuse, which can occur concurrently.

Nursing homes, meant to protect and nurture their patients, are actually one of the most dangerous environments for vulnerable older persons with disabilities. The Nursing Home Abuse Center reports a nursing home abuse rate of about 44%, and a neglect rate of nearly 95%. Elder abusers are rarely prosecuted due to stigma, social isolation of the victim, lack of support services, inaccessible reporting, and proximity of abusers. Relatives constitute about 90% of elder abuse perpetrators, which often makes the victim reluctant to prosecute their own spouses, adult children, or other relatives.

Skin. Source: Victor Camilo, Creative Commons.

Direct abuse and neglect of the elderly is widely sustained by the deeply pervasive public attitude of hostility towards aging. Beauty products are regularly marketed as “anti-aging,” covering up the crows’ feet, varicose veins, liver spots and silver hairs that inevitably accompany a well-lived life. Most of the stigma is inevitably directed at aging women, as femininity carries the heavy burden of visual appeal. The cosmetic surgery industry is booming as women are pressured to appear as veritable supermodels long after the glow of youth has faded. Social media surrounds us with visuals of gorgeous, toned, smooth-skinned women who never seem to age a day, while the rest of us have to keep up with whatever products, surgeries or diets we can find.

Gone are the days where women past a certain age could relax into frumpy mom jeans and orthopedic tennis shoes without fearing judgment. Modern grandmothers now face the strenuous expectation to maintain a Helen Mirren-esque figure with the style and poise of Meryl Streep. Notably, these two women are some of the very few well-known older actresses; both have had to work tirelessly to achieve that notoriety, considering Streep’s record-breaking two-dozen Academy Award nominations and Mirren’s prestigious Triple Crown of Acting that has only ever been awarded to 23 people. It’s undeniable that Hollywood has a major problem with representation of women over thirty. Men in the acting industry get a few extra decades of “silver fox” stardom while women face rejection at first wrinkle.

An older couple links arms as they carry bags and walk together.
Lean on Me. Source: Amro, Creative Commons.

Ageism sometimes feels like an inescapable facet of society, but it shouldn’t have to be. Encouraging and celebrating old age will eventually serve to benefit everyone, as positive attitudes towards aging have been shown to increase lifespan by nearly eight years. Elderly people have had autonomy and dignity systematically stolen from them through attitudes of derision and pity– they are constantly viewed as either cantankerous burdens to society or doddering, wretched old fools.  One’s social contribution or lack thereof should not be a determinant in preserving human dignity. After all, human rights are for all humans, right?

From here, we have to do better on a global scale. Any success in reducing ageism requires confrontation of our own internal prejudices, since youth are the major perpetrators of age-based discrimination. The efforts we make today in reducing oppression for older individuals will directly impact our future experiences. Psychologists have found three major components essential to active engagement in fighting ageism:

  1. Social integration
    • Often, elderly individuals are unable to fully participate in society due to social hostility and lack of accessibility. Many of us have not been educated on topics relating to older people, and some even may find engaging with the elderly to feel uncomfortable. Fuller integration into society would foster respect for the aged community, as increased public presence of older individuals would promote culture of tolerance.
  2. Reduce cultural shame
    • Current media culture is incredibly toxic towards older people, and portrays the elderly in a negative light far too frequently. Advertisements should attempt to portray older people with respect to their human dignity, rather than the foolish, bumbling representations that are far too common in current media.
  3. Accept aging as a fact of life
    • Ageism often stems from personal fears of death and dying. This fear is incredibly common but damaging to both society at large and to individuals who hold them– ironically, negative attitudes towards aging have been shown to decrease lifespans. To combat this, old age should be normalized and celebrated.

Clearly, ageism is not something that can be eradicated at all once. It requires active change on both an institutional and personal level, as age-based discrimination is deeply ingrained in cultural attitudes and everyday interactions. Monumental as it may seem, ageism is still an issue that we must tackle if we ourselves are to experience old age with the dignity that all humans deserve. So remember to always respect your elders, whether out of regard for human dignity, self-preservation, or both.

Recap of Using Digital Storytelling to Promote Human Rights: The Experience of Disability Advocates

co-authored Tyler Goodwin and Nicholas Sherwood

a picture of Dr. Trevisan presenting
Photo by Tyler Goodwin

On Wednesday, October 11, 2017, the UAB Institute for Human Rights sponsored an event titled: “Using Digital Story Telling to Promote Disability Rights.” This event featured Dr. Filippo Trevisan, Assistant Professor of Communications at American University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Trevisan is a disability rights advocate whose research features the use of technology to enhance accessibility for persons with disabilities. He is the Deputy Director of the Institute on Disability and Public Policy at American University, and an accomplished author, who released his book, Disability Rights Advocacy Online, last year. Dr. Trevisan’s presentation attempts to answer the question of how advocacy effectively inspires policy change for marginalized populations- most notably, for the disabled community.

Disability Rights

When the United Nations codified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, disability rights were first established at the international level of governance. This Convention is notable for its inclusion of actual persons with disabilities in the creation of this legal document, and for good reason. Persons with disabilities have long had to self-advocate for their rights, and the potency of grassroots efforts for disability rights distinguish this rights movement from other human rights movements. Dr. Trevisan, through the lens of information and communication technology, aimed to understand how formalized rights were impacted by the grassroots efforts of persons with disabilities.

Dr. Trevisan spoke of how Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have significantly impacted the world of disability rights. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that ICTs have allowed persons with disabilities to “enhance their social, cultural, political and economic integration in communities by enlarging the scope of activities available to them.” ICTs have promoted self-advocacy by allowing persons with disabilities to directly participate in any number of activities by directly getting their voice heard- middlemen are no longer required for persons with disabilities to get their issues out into the world. By surpassing several links in the communication process, the voices and narratives of persons with disabilities are more authentically communicated to policy makers and all levels of governance: local, regional, national, and international.

By skipping these ‘middlemen’, the effectiveness of a message (such as advocacy for disability rights) is more prominent, and the intended effect (policy change) is more directly linked to the advocate. According to Trevisan, two main communication styles are used by disability rights advocates to persuade policy-makers.

Emotional Appeal Versus Rational Arguments

Breaking down the rhetoric used by disability rights advocates, Trevisan elucidated on two primary forms of persuasive messages: messages appealing to emotion and messages appealing to reason. Emotional appeals typically feature personal narratives, eliciting feelings of empathy and sympathy by the receiver of the message. By contrast, rational arguments (i.e. appealing to reason) offer evidence-based arguments in support of policy change. A challenge of human rights advocates (in this case, disability rights advocates) is deciding which, or in what combination, of these persuasive tactics is most likely to achieve the desired outcome.

Historically, policy-makers have favored (or been more susceptible to) appeals to reason, as evidence-based arguments offer a more sound and predictable argument for policy change (or lack thereof). However, upon analyzing cases in the United Kingdom and United States, Trevisan documented a noticeable modal shift in successful argument tactics. Instead of favoring rational appeals, policy-makers are starting to respond and succumb to emotional appeals; this change is most clearly documented in policies related to persons with disabilities. This has huge implications for advocacy efforts and policy-makers alike. Bygone are the days where statistics and figures hold greater weight than personal narratives and stories. Perhaps we do indeed live in a “post-fact world” (though hopefully not). The question now becomes: why are emotional appeals more effective than rational arguments? And how can we marry these two approaches to achieve both: 1) successful persuasion of policy-makers to codify human rights and 2) create the emotional appeal from a sound and practical argument?

a picture of social media icons as flowers indicating the growth of social media
Growing Social Media. Source: mkhmarketing, Creative Commons

The Power of Stories

The answer to the first question lies in the power of story; Trevisan argues the impact of personal story-sharing in disability rights advocacy cannot be overstated. The importance of persons with disabilities telling their personal stories has proven to be very effective when it comes to advocating for their rights, and Dr. Trevisan mentioned two critical components to story telling: 1) the voice of the person telling the story, and 2) the storyteller feeling his or her voice is heard. Dr. Trevisan states his research led him to find “individuals [with disabilities] are now able to participate in crowd-sourced campaigns, and they want to.” He goes on to say persons with disabilities generally feel authentic in their narrative-sharing and the significant strides in disability rights implementation (for example, the CRPD) shows their voices are being hear.

Persons with disabilities have been particularly effective in their use of crowdsourcing- the virtual participation in efforts such as rights-advocacy. While crowd-sourcing has been a great way to get stories out into the world, the particular mixture of rational vs. emotional components is up for debate. How narrow should the stories be? If someone has to edit these stories, who should it be and what gives them the right to do so? Should there be no editing of the stories? If not, what if the stories do not pertain to the cause? Is it right to cut out someone’s story that they want to tell? How can we (consumers of information) be sure we are receiving an authentic and genuine message from a credible source (especially in a “post-fact world”)?

Dr. Trevisan’s cunning research of story-telling in disability-rights advocacy suggests the paradigm of successful policy change is shifting: from rational appeal to emotional connection, from the presentation of hard facts to the telling of personal stories. Moving forward with this new knowledge, human rights researchers and advocates must find a way to marry objective reality with the subjective story of humanity.

 

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