Disability organisations in the UK could learn from developing countries about how to cope with the impact of public sector funding cuts, according to a leading disabled human rights expert.
Diane Mulligan, who leads the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s work on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said many developing countries had been forced to be “creative” in how they promote disability equality.
She told Disability News Service: “With the austerity measures being taken by the new coalition government, we can learn a lot from the global south on how to do things well within a limited budget and resources.”
In using role models to change attitudes to disabled people, some developing countries have focused on everyday disabled people doing everyday things, rather than “over-performers” such as Paralympians or the Labour MP David Blunkett, she said. Other developing countries have developed low-cost accessible latrines.
Mulligan, a long-standing member of the EHRC’s disability committee and a new member of the government’s Equality 2025 advisory network, said the impact of funding cuts on disabled people would become clearer in the autumn when the government starts “spelling out some detail on welfare reform, independent living and social care”.
But she said the “age of austerity” and the lack of resources might prove to be “beneficial”, as it could force disability organisations to come together and cooperate in campaigning for the government to fully implement the UN convention in the UK.
She believes the UN convention will have an impact on disabled people’s rights in the UK, in areas such as independent living, particularly as disabled people will be able to hold the government to account for its decisions, as it has signed up to the convention’s optional protocol.
But she said the disability movement and other disability organisations would have to work together “with a united voice” and “forget our differences” if they want to “make much headway” in ensuring disability rights are fully implemented.
She added: “It is easy to fight your own corner but there is strength in coalitions.”
Earlier this month, Mulligan was nominated as the UK’s candidate for election in 2012 for one of 18 seats on the UN’s expert committee which monitors implementation of the convention in those countries where it has been ratified.
She has government funding for her campaign to run for election over the next two years and wants the majority of that money to be spent working with DPOs, so she will know their key concerns.
One area she will focus on in the lead-up to the election is examining why the Labour government ratified the convention with reservations and an “interpretive declaration” – the government’s convention opt-outs – on inclusive education, immigration, employment in the armed services and benefits.
As a member of the EHRC disability committee, Mulligan said she will ask the new coalition government to say when it will re-examine these opt-outs. “I am very interested to know why other countries didn’t feel the need to put reservations or interpretive declarations in place – there needs to be a conversation with the new government about that approach.”
One of the opt-outs concerns the convention’s demand for an inclusive education system.
Mulligan said Cuba was the only country in the world with a truly inclusive education system. “Cuba is not a particularly rich country but they decided that they were going to have an inclusive education system even if it meant there was one-to-one support for three children in a classroom. And it works, and it works really well.”
But she warned: “It is going to cost quite a lot of money. Unless you are prepared to invest, it is not going to happen.”
Mulligan was speaking as the EHRC published a new guide to the UN convention, describing disabled people’s rights and how to use them.
The guide sets out how disability organisations can use the convention in negotiations, in advocacy and in legal cases, and how they can send their own reports to the UN on how the government is implementing the convention.
Mike Smith, chair of the EHRC’s disability committee, said the EHRC would “continue to work with the government to make sure that it is implemented fully”.
He said: “The convention is not just a paper ‘declaration’ without any teeth. It requires government to take action to remove barriers and give disabled people real freedom, dignity and equality.
“Our role is to ensure Britain makes rapid progress towards making the convention rights a reality for disabled people.”