DSQ > Winter 2009, Volume 29, No.1

This article presents the views of four young disabled people from Sierra Leone, India, Liberia and Sri Lanka regarding what the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities means to them and the experiences that they had in promoting the Convention. All of the four contributors are involved in Leonard Cheshire Disability's Young Voices project. This project was initiated by Leonard Cheshire Disability during the negotiation of the UN Convention, which enabled disabled people from developing countries to make a direct contribution to the negotiation process, including attending the Ad Hoc Committee meeting in New York. The long-term objective of the Young Voices project is to nurture and develop the skill of young disabled people in developing countries to become the future leaders of the disability movement. The project is now embarking on its second stage, with disabled people receiving training on how to effectively lobby their Governments to sign and ratify the UN Convention as well as working with the media (including film making) in their own countries to raise the political profile of disability issues. Eighteen (18) young disabled people, one from each of the participating countries involved in Young Voices project, attended the conference jointly hosted by Leonard Cheshire Disability and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, that took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 19th - 22nd May 2008. Further information regarding the conference can be found at http://www.lcint.org/?lid=4048


Throughout the negotiations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), Leonard Cheshire Disability was committed to ensuring that young people with disabilities living in developing countries could have input to the discussions. As a result, its Young Voices project was born. In phase one of the project, 222 disabled people from 12 countries were consulted regarding what they considered to be important to their own lives, and how these issues could be incorporated and reflected in the Convention. Some of those disabled people who took part in focus group discussions actually attended several meetings of the Ad Hoc Committee, whose mandate was to draft and finalize the text. Leonard Cheshire Disability's Young Voices Project not only enabled disabled young people from developing countries to actually take part in the negotiations, but it has also continued to build up the skills and confidence of young disabled people so that they become future leaders in the international disability movement, politics, business and civil society. Consequently, within several countries, with the assistance of Leonard Cheshire Disability, disabled young people are now receiving training on how to lobby their respective governments to effectively implement the Convention, as well as receiving training on how to raise the political profile of disability issues, especially by using the media.

Now that the UNCRPD is international law, the Young Voices project has entered a new phase, namely raising awareness of the Convention in each participating country and pushing for its signature, ratification and most importantly its implementation. A main focus over recent months has been training in film making, A representative from each group in each of the 18 countries now participating traveled to the LCD/UNECA conference in Addis Ababa in May 2008 and received training from Sorious Samura and Ron McCullagh, world renowned documentary makers. Now trained, and armed with video cameras, the Young Voices are starting to produce advocacy films telling their stories to the world.

This article attempts to provide an opportunity for four young people with disabilities, who have been involved in the Young Voices project, to tell in their own words of their experiences with the Project and what the Convention means to them. Admittedly, this only gives a small indication of the work that has been undertaken by the Young Voices project, but it nevertheless gives an indication of the work that has been achieved. The contributions in this article come from Sierra Leone, India, Liberia and Sri Lanka.

What Does the UNCRPD Mean to Me?
Mohamed Saidu Kamara, Sierra Leone

When the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability was adopted on the 13th December 2006, Sierra Leone's ex-president Dr. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah had for years earlier declared the end to the countries decade old war which in its own way hugely contributed to the disabled population of the country.

It is certain that our country's disabled citizens formed part of the most vulnerable people in our country. This Convention, which is the first human rights treaty to surface and be adopted in the twenty first century, is geared towards letting persons with disability live a meaningful life and also creating a platform where they could show their talent and skills regardless of their disabilities. It goes without saying that even disabled people who have been deprived and disadvantaged, should be given the best care, attention and protection. It's the old saying "tomorrow belongs to people who have prepared for it today." Society's negative thoughts and perceptions held about persons with disability have given society the opportunity to constantly relegate us to the back door of human development. We have a duty religiously and morally to see to it that persons with disability live a decent, respected and meaningful life worthy of education.

What's The Essence of the UNCRPD?

The UNCRPD is very much essential in a way that its spells out the rights and responsibilities accrued to such persons. As of 2006, many countries have signed on to the Convention but not many have ratified it thus leaving its domestication and implementation floating.

Who will the UNCRPD Benefit?

One would think that this question has an obvious answer — "persons with disability." Indisputably, this Convention will benefit every citizen of the world as every inhabitant of this globe is a potential candidate for disability. This is evident in the fact that the globe's six hundred and fifty million disabled people had no wish or desire for inflicting upon themselves the catastrophe that has today befallen upon them.

Why Should the UNCRPD Be Signed Up To and Subsequently Ratified?

It is important that laws are legislated to protect the well being of persons with disability. If such laws that are aimed at protecting the rights of persons with disability are entrenched into our system, the future of everybody on earth would be safeguarded.

Why are persons with disability marginalized and segregated?

Back home in Sierra Leone, only about 30% of our population is literate. This hugely contributes to the odd thoughts that people hold about persons with disability and this makes many ignorantly conclude that disability is contagious. It is against this back drop that even though persons with disability may be qualified for a certain job, they are not being granted employment. Because we are not being considered and carefully thought about many institutions, government buildings and other public places are not accessible to persons with disability. This is as a result of the numerous stairs and the non-availability of a lift system. Back in our academic institutions, there is the fear that a person with a disability is not complete to perform and participate. On this note, many equipments to aid their academic pursuit are not available.

What Role Can Persons with Disability Play to Make This Convention Meaningful To Them?

The belief in the good old aphorism, that "disability does not mean inability" should be upheld, cherished and maintained. Persons with disabilities should also be with the firm conviction that "disability is ability is disguise." We should tirelessly rise to the occasion to prove our critics wrong. Our different disabilities should not impede us from meaningful contribution to societal development.

We can make ourselves even more disabled if we relegate ourselves to those odd sayings where persons with disabilities are considered as liabilities and as persons who were unworthy of having a stake and not a contribution to the progress of the country.

To us in the Young Voices of Sierra Leone, the UNCRPD is the greatest hope, assurance and guarantee that if ratified it will enable us live a dignified life and allow us to put our disability behind us and mentally prepare us for the challenges that lie ahead. We are confident that this is the feeling that is being felt by every disabled person globally.

Young Voices: Training in Ethiopia UN Conference and Action
Yellamma Gangadhar, India

A year ago had anyone told me that I would be travelling to Africa to attend a Conference or that I would be taught the basics of video shooting by world famous film makers, I would have just laughed it off. However, as it happened, I did travel to Ethiopia, I did attend a UN Conference and I was indeed taught film making by Sorious and Ron. For a girl who has been abandoned by her parents just because she has a disability or for a girl who previously hadn't even travelled out of her province, it is indeed, as they say, coming a long way.

The Young Voices training in Ethiopia and attending the UN conference was a lifetime experience for me. So far in my life I have always fought and struggled, against mindsets, against discrimination etc. It is only after my involvement with the Young Voices programme that I felt that out there, there are so many others like me who have the same problems and are going through the same struggles. It is then that I realized that if we unite, we can become stronger and can deal with our problems better. These problems have not been created by us and it is not because of the way we are or look, it is because society fails to understand people with disabilities and also fails to recognize that we are human beings and have the right to enjoy like anybody else.

I was fortunate to have had a good education and a better life (than many other disabled people) and it was made possible because of the Bangalore Cheshire Home where I lived for many years. I was admitted to the Bangalore Cheshire Home at the age of ten. The Home gave me an opportunity to grow, to develop and it also enabled me to lead an independent life. It was only because I got an opportunity that I could educate myself, work in one of the best companies in India, and also get married. Sadly, though, there are many young people with disabilities who are still facing great difficulties because they haven't gotten an opportunity. Moreover, it is not at all because of their fault or wrong doing. So people with disabilities like me and many others who have a voice should take action to make a difference in the world we live in. If we act together we can change the world and make it better for persons with disabilities.

After the video training in Ethiopia, when I was trying to make a film, I spoke to Rosaline who was being denied higher education as a person with disability. Her college was inaccessible so the college authorities were apprehensive of whether it would be okay to admit her. That the college is not accessible is not Rosaline's fault. So why should she pay for it or suffer for it? It is time that our leaders think about these basic questions. In case they don't, we as young disabled people will make them think about them by talking to them and making them realize that we have made them leaders to take care of our problems. I could see myself in Rosaline's place only a couple of years back when I faced the same problem because the college was not accessible. Things haven't changed much, but whether it will change in future or not depends greatly on us. If we want it to change it, it will change and we can make it happen. After talking to the Principal, she agreed to admit my friend Rosaline and said that someone would assist her to reach the classroom. At least, she would be admitted and would be able to attend classes. But it still isn't good enough. If other students can reach their classrooms without any assistance from others why should my friend need assistance?

We as young persons with disabilities must together make our voices heard and demand our rights so that we do not continue to be in the same situation in which Rosaline is in today. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantees the rights of persons with disabilities, and, young adults were able to share their opinions and views when the Convention was being drafted thanks to the opportunities created by LCD for the same. It is now up to us to act as a united group and put pressure on the government to ensure that the Convention is properly implemented.

I feel very happy and proud to be associated with Young Voices and I am grateful that because of Leonard Cheshire Disability I am today an independent person, happily married and working for a reputed company like Infosys. But most importantly, today I can stand up for myself and for other persons with disabilities like myself.

A call for the Ratification of the UNCRPD in Liberia
Daintowon D. Paybeyee, Liberia

The UNCRPD is the response of the international community to a long history of discrimination, exclusion and dehumanization of persons with disabilities. It is historic and pace setting in many ways, being the fastest negotiated human right treaty ever and the first of the twenty-first century. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities is the result of three years of negotiations involving Civil Society, Governments, National Human Rights Institutions and International Organizations. After adopting the Convention in the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, a record number of countries demonstrated their commitment to respecting the rights of persons with disabilities by signing when they opened for signature in March 2007.

Through research, the Young Voices group in Liberia has realized that up to date, 130 Countries have signed the UNCRPD, including Liberia, and 32 Countries have ratified it. Out of the 32 Countries, 7 Countries are from Africa and out of the 7 Countries, 3 Countries (Mali, Niger, and Guinea) are from West Africa. One of the three from West Africa, which is Guinea, is from the Mano River Union (MRU) of which Liberia is the Current Chair. All these countries from West Africa and even in the Mano River Union are all Francophone. Therefore, Liberia should set record as the first Anglophone country to ratify with full national implementations.

Persons with disabilities are routinely denied these basic rights:

  • Living independently in the community
  • Making their own decisions
  • Moving around freely (lack of accessibility)
  • Receiving qualified education
  • Accessing information
  • Political and social rights etc.

Our three branches of Government — Executive, Judiciary and the Legislature — have a key role to play in promoting and protecting human rights. There is now a need to translate the UNCRPD into practice by ratifying it with full national implementation.

The UNCRPD ensures that the world's largest minority enjoys the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It covers the many areas where persons with disabilities have been discriminated against including: access to justice; participation in political and public life; education; employment; freedom from torture, exploitation and violence; and freedom of movement (accessibility). The Convention is a step towards changing attitude and perception, which is the main objective of the Young Voices Project, and ensuring that sccieties recognize that all people must have equal opportunities to reach their full potential instead of considering persons with disabilities as objects of charity and pity. Most importantly, the UNCRPD is to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities and to promote respect for our inherent dignity.

Over 560,000 persons living with disabilities in Liberia, which constitute 16% plus of the population who will benefit from the ratification and full national implementation of the UNCRPD. These numbers have also increased due to the recent War in 2003; this census was done by UNICEF in 1997.

The Young Voices Project in Liberia, along with the National Union of Organizations of the Disabled (NUOD), Partners, and Disabled People Organizations (DPOs) that are part of the union decided from the 12th of June to engage our Government — mainly law makers through parades, campaigns, interactions, the media (largely through radio talk shows as well as the newspapers) highlight discrimination across the country. With all these means being put into place, on the 14th of August 2008, we were invited to section (plenary) of the law makers to observe how the process was going to be, because the UNCRPD was on the agenda for that day, and the Bill was signed by the Lower House, which is the House of Representatives. And on the 28th of August 2008, the Convention was concurred by the Senate. Now, it has been sent to the President, Her Excellency Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for her signature after which it will be ratified.

Ranjana Chandralal, President of the Young Voices Group in Galle, Sri Lanka

I have come a long way since the days when I was at the School for the Blind. My parents looked after me very well, although they were barely able to make ends meet, but they had never allowed me to go out and interact with others in the community. Having been at the School for the Blind for more than 11 years, I had never had the opportunity to maintain good social contacts with other villagers or our neighbours. After leaving the Blind School, I had to live with my parents but my parents would only allow me to visit my own peers who were with me at the School for the Blind.

After leaving school, I got involved with the Council for the Blind in the Southern Province and on being appointed the Vice President of the Council I was able to support other people with visual impairment like myself. One day, a person from the LC Disability Resource Centre in Habaraduwa visited me with our village leader. They spoke to us about LCDRC and about the future programmes for and with persons with disabilities. Each week, the same person from LCDRC used to visit me and he gradually became a family friend. One day, he took me to the Disability Resource Centre and I met a number of persons with disabilities at the Centre. One of the workers at the office spoke to me for nearly two hours and changed my mindset positively and dramatically. Later on, the same person visited my parents and had a lengthy discussion with them. After this, I became a fully independent person and my parents began to support me in my efforts to work with and on behalf of those less privileged in my society.

Later on, I became a member of the village self help group and played an active role in ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities in the group. I had the opportunity to interact with my own villagers and now, I feel as though I am one among them. At times, I have been able to support not only my disabled brothers and sisters, but also non disabled persons, in solving their problems.

The days passed quickly and one fine day, LCDRC invited me to participate in a two day residential workshop for Young Voices in Colombo. I still remember the dates, it was the 2nd and 3rd of May 2006. There were 22 young adults with disabilities representing a few districts of Sri Lanka. The main objective of this gathering was to share and record views on the proposed UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We were given an opportunity to share our experiences and the challenges that we face as persons with disabilities. Thereafter, we discussed the ways in which the system can be changed to make it more and more disabled friendly. All the participants were young adults and we were able to share whatever we wanted freely. In the past, I had found that most persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka were reluctant to criticize the government and its policies. Nor did disabled people share their feelings about sex issues openly. But at the workshop most of the participants, including women with disabilities, openly discussed about the right to sex. I felt so relieved to be able to put across everything that I wanted. At the end, we all agreed to form a Young Voices group in Sri Lanka so that we could work as a pressure group and speak out against discrimination, prejudice, injustice, and human rights violation of disabled people. All the participants decided to put pressure on the government to implement the UNCRPD in Sri Lanka. This workshop was one of the best that I had attended because it allowed us to be real and active participants instead of just being listeners.

Later on, with the support of LCDRC- Galle, we formed a Young Voices group in Galle comprising 29 young adults. The capacities of the group members were built through training programmes on leadership, social mobilization, effective communication, public relations, human rights, disability rights, national legislations and the UNCRPD and on information about government schemes for disabled persons. I was elected the Chairperson of the Young Voices group and I accepted the challenge happily.

Now we have adequate knowledge about the UNCRPD. With the help of LCDRC- Galle, we conducted sensitization workshops on the UNCRPD at the community level, Members in the Young Voices group know 19 articles of the UNCRPD well and during the course of time, we plan to train them about the other 31 articles.

Earlier I had only worked with people with visual impairments. After my involvement with Young Voices, I began to lobby, advocate and campaign for the rights of all disabled people irrespective of the kind of disability. I am happy to share that these group efforts have been successful and almost all the common buildings which were built recently in the Habaraduwa Divisional Secretariat have been made accessible. We have also built a very good rapport with the government officials in the District and they are very supportive of our cause of ratification of the UNCRPD in Sri Lanka.

Our main purpose is to ensure, protect, and promote the rights of persons with disabilities to lead a dignified life. Implementation of the UNCRPD as a legislation in Sri Lanka will be the best way to achieve our purpose. We undertook a number of activities at divisional, district, provincial and national levels to pressurize and convince the government to ratify the UNCRPD.

With the help of LCDRC, I had the chance to play a significant role in lobbying with our government to sign the UNCRPD. I met the Prime Minister in Sri Lanka in the Parliamentary complex and handed over a memorandum to expedite the ratification process. That was the red letter day of my life. I had never thought that I would be able to meet our Prime Minister and demand that the rights of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka are guaranteed. I made a speech on the UNCRPD in front of him. Three national newspapers published the same with pictures and my whole village and relatives, including my immediate family members, wished me well with open arms.

I visited a few NGOs and INGOs in the Galle District with my team members to get their support for the speedy ratification of UNCRPD. They all supported me in doing so. I want to be a real leader who can change things for the betterment of others.

At the district consortium meeting for NGOs operating in the Galle district, I made a presentation on the UNCRPD. They all agreed to work with the Young Voices group. A gigantic street march was organized in Galle town with 447 persons with disabilities to lobby with the government to ratify the UNCRPD. Later, we met the Chief Minister of the Southern Province and handed over to him a memorandum to support the ratification of UNCRPD. He promised to speed up the process in front of all present.

When I was selected to represent Sri Lanka for the Young Voices training programme held at Addis Ababa, I felt I was one among the very few fortunate persons in the world. I was very excited when I was informed that I had been selected for the training and when I informed my parents, they cried and I cried too.

A five day residential training session was arranged by LCDRC Sri Lanka at their Colombo office before my departure to Addis Ababa. I learned a lot on the rights of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka, legislations made for persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka, the lives of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka, and about the contents of the UNCRPD. I must be thankful to LCDRC for enlightening me with such valuable information.

The training in Ethiopia was a real experience for me. There were 18 young adults with disabilities including myself. We all bonded together like a family. At the training, I experienced how it must feel to have a speech and hearing impairment. Although I heard people talking I could not understand what they said since I did not know the language. Almost all the young voices wanted to talk to me but I couldn't answer them at once. My translator played a great role in bridging the gap, so that I didn't feel as though I was away from them. I would like to thank LCD- Sri Lanka, LCD- SARO and LCD-UK for selecting me irrespective of my language ability. I didn't receive a quality education during my school time. It's not my problem. It's the problem of our system. If they had not selected me purely because of my language inability, then it would have been like double discrimination. But, LCD is a rights based organization in the real sense of the word.

At the training, we were given two days training on film making. It was so exciting and interesting. My translator understood what the trainer said and explained to me whatever he learned. Later, we were asked to do some practical sessions and our facilitator praised a couple of times on the quality the films that we were able to make during the practical sessions.

I was treated equally by everybody and I learned about the concept and strategies of Young Voices. Now I want to prove to the world that the Young Voices in Sri Lanka is the best team in ensuring, promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities together with the government of Sri Lanka.

For more information about Young Voices and to see their advocacy films: http://www.LCDisability.org/youngvoices

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