Event Reports

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Israel

by Catherine Hirschwitz

From Ratification to Implementation

The two day conference (March 13-14, 2012) had a clear message: We need to use the Convention to provoke changes in society – not only to rectify past discrimination against persons with disabilities, but also to create a society based on justice and equity.

In cooperation with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the Justice Ministry and Bizchut (the Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities), the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem organized a conference in anticipation of Israel’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The two day conference brought together people with disabilities, scholars, lawyers, disability professionals and representatives from the government and civil society.

In order to involve a maximum number of participants with disabilities in the conference, the organizers had selected an accessible venue suitable for the event and provided captioning, sign language and amplification.

The disabled are given a special education, and they live in a special environment. “The term ‘special’ in the area of disability is a curse: ‘Separate’ is what ‘special’ really means. We are denied equality, as people believe that we are unable to make decisions on our own”. In these terms Judith E. Heumann opened her address on how to “Ensure the Human Rights of Disabled People through Effective Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in Israel”.

She had personally experienced the adverse effects of “special education”. Separate classes mean no connection with other children, in fact segregation. These are the kinds of barriers which prevent persons with disability from living a life of equality. Very young, she had realized that as a disabled person, she had to get involved with changing the system that limited her – or else she would not participate in society. As a disability rights activist, she has worked with NGO’s and governments and contributed to the development of human rights legislation and policies benefiting children and adults with disabilities. She has been most particularly involved in defending independent living for the disabled.

Judith Heumann strongly emphasized that to ensure the rights of the disabled one does not only need strong laws and regulations, but these laws must be fully implemented and adapted to the needs of the disabled. She exhorted the conference participants to share their knowledge and ways of implementation as well as to develop appropriate services for the disabled (accessibility, support, educational services etc).

The CRPD is a major accomplishment, adopted within 4 years, by consensus of 192 countries. Today Israel must adapt the language of the CRPD to its laws and regulations. How can Israel reduce barriers and give the disabled full equality?

According to Bila Berg, legal adviser for the Commission for equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities, the law in Israel is approaching compliance with the Convention but through a very slow process. The situation in the field could be defined as paternalistic with anachronistic laws combined with real advances. The commission believes that a change of policy is necessary not a change of legislation. The following rights need to be fully implemented:

  • The Right to live in a community: This implies individual aid and support (in Israel this aid is given only to mentally disabled). Too many children and adults still live in segregated environment.

  • The Right to education: This also means the right to transport and access in the schools, which is recognized in Israel but aid and support are often too low to give these children equal rights.

  • The right to employment: Unemployment is much higher among the disabled. The legislation must be changed and standard policies must be implemented by all government departments in order to guarantee fair wages and working conditions.
  • Equality against discrimination: The law exists only in the public sector. No sanction is imposed in case of violation in the private sector.
  • The right to self-determination: The disabled person must make his/her own decisions and choose his/her own destiny. Here the language of the Convention and of the Israel law differs. Terms such as ‘retarded’ must be deleted from Israeli Law.
  • Check the role of guardians with power of attorney which sometimes tend to impose more barriers.
  • Check certain incompatibilities with the religious law in Israel, which does not, in certain cases, give full freedom to the disabled.

All these changes should be accompanied by a campaign to develop the awareness of the public for the problems of the disabled.

To this list, the lecturers also added several changes which could optimize the situation of the disabled and reach inclusion of disabled persons according to the UN convention: Israel must

  • set priorities within the convention rules and create data bank and mapping of barriers,

  • support more advocacy offices,

  • urge the government ministries to work with organizations of disabled and employ disabled. These persons would become role models (like the disabled present at the conference);

  • reduce exclusion, separation and dependence;

  • reconcile the world of human rights with reality and reach a consensus between the civil society, the disabled, the state and academia.

Several sessions were devoted to important individual aspects of the convention and the implementation of the law in terms of accessibility; access to justice; the right to education and employment, and life within the community.

Accessibility is one of the leading notions of the Convention. Accessibility allows true integration in society through involvement in the community, schools and the work place.

Education must be accessible: Access into schools, with special technical and technological adaptation to suit the disabled persons and allow them to make friends. In the Arab sector many disabled are still placed in a segregated education system and most buildings have no equipment and are not accessible. Segregation even worsens the disability. “Normal” people must become familiar with disabled students in order to reduce the stigmatisation. Stereotypes must be fought everywhere. Some NGO’s have set up information centres at universities to help integrate and involve disabled students and comply with Helen Keller’s famous words: “The highest result of education is tolerance”.

“The convention is intended as a means to reach better places” said Yoav Kraiem, chairman of the National Council for the Rehabilitation of the Mentally Disabled in the Community. Not only by providing physical help (wheelchair, elevators, ramps etc) but also help for the mentally disabled, who need other instruments in order to learn, work and enjoy their rights and freedom to live independently if they choose to do so.

To defend the right of the disabled to work, it is necessary to create the right structures in the community and offer accessible places of employment. According to the law every workplace with over 20 employees must employ disabled (the employer benefits of tax rebate etc). Unfortunately most employers prefer to pay higher taxes rather than including disabled persons in their staff.

At the heart of the convention, article 12 deals with the right to legal capacity and represents the necessary step to achieve all other rights. “My legal capacity and my right to exercise my rights to legal capacity shall never be limited on the ground of my capacity. As a result the state must provide support to help me exercise that right” explained Gabor Gombos. Support actually signifies respect for the person’s autonomy and preferences.

Legal Capacity also means the right to take decisions, to defend one’s own rights. Deprived of legal capacity, a person cannot work, sign checks or even decide on his/her medical treatment. Critical decisions are often taken about the disabled person without including him or her: free employment or protected environment, living in a hostel or in the community. Each person concerned must understand the decision which is being taken in one´s name by the court or the guardian. In some cases, guardianship can even lead to forced hospitalization or illegal institutionalising. In fact the disabled person has no access to all the rights listed in the CRPD.

Naama Lerner and Batya Leidner referred to new laws which aim at improving the lives of the disabled and complying with the CRPD. The new law of interrogation and testimony procedures recognizes the difficulties for persons with mental, cognitive disabilities to understand, to interpret the questions and answer them properly. This law is a major step in the good direction even though the number of professionals aware of the specific problems of disabled persons is still too limited.

The new law of rehabilitation implemented by the Ministry of Health plans to open hospitals doors and bring long-term hospitalized back to the community; enhance the education of professionals and therapists to promote social skills among the disabled; change the structures of the hostels so as to improve inclusion, and decrease stigmatisation of mental illness. 9000 persons already receive services and support in the community. One important barrier remains: There are not enough places for rent, one of the consequences of the infamous “NIMBY” principle (“Not In My Backyard!”).

Many persons with disabilities participated in the conference, as lecturers or members of the audience. They impressed everybody with their optimism and strength. Themselves confronted with severe problems, they are ready to defend their own rights and also help others know their rights and achieve better living using the current laws and regulations. Their personal interventions also provided food for thought to the officials whose role is to adapt and implement the existing laws. They showed themselves ready to research on the different subjects at ministerial level and open special frameworks wherever necessary.

Adv. Abbas Abbas suffers from severe visual impediment and encountered many difficulties when registering for law school at the Hebrew University. As a lawyer, he has created a self-advocacy organisation which helps and advises people who suffer from discrimination due to their disabilities. In the Arab sector specifically the problem is even more acute and most people are not aware of their rights. To that purpose he has translated the legislation in easy Arabic.

Gabor Gombos (himself survivor of psychiatry internment in Hungary) is a theoretical physicist. As he stated: “I am a person with disability. Am I different? I have a double nature: same and different”. He has often been treated differently (in the negative sense, of course). To achieve real inclusion one must address the same and the different and enrol the disabled children in fully integrated schools for example.

Eldar Yusupov can express himself only through speaking aid (a special communication keyboard which gives him a voice). Following difficulties to be accepted in schools and university, he completed 4 years studies at Tel Aviv University but could not find employment because of his severe disability. He recently placed a movie on Facebook and since then has received many job offers.

A young mentally disabled woman presented her life since she has moved in protective housing with four partners. Assisted by counsellors (for shopping for example) she lives and works in the community. Following original fears, she has learned to cook, to become organised, financially organised, to live with partners. She is able to take decisions (with support) and enjoys extra curriculum activities, travel, and a real social life. Her supported job (in a private kindergarten of disabled children) gives her independence. “This is the best thing that could happen to me. People take real interest in me and my partners. Many apartments are available in and out of the city, a disabled must not be condemned to live in an institution or closed hostels.”

This young woman touched at the essence of the matter. Every person deserves the right to be happy and live independently in the community. Quality of life means freedom of choice and respect for the will of each person who is given the correct tools to take the right decisions.

In conclusion let us quote the Convention itself: “Disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

The conference participants all agreed that interdisciplinary pooling of resources, services and ideas will transform and improve the lives of the disabled in Israel. However, it is most important to constantly involve the disabled in the whole process: “Nothing about us without us!”

Ambassador Gallegos’ words do sum up the conference: “We need to use the Convention to provoke changes in society – not only to rectify past discrimination against persons with disabilities, but also to create a society based on justice and equity. Let this be our commitment: differences among individuals, shall not hinder enjoyment by all of the universally-recognized human rights.”

Persons with disabilities encounter many disadvantages in their societies and are often subjected to stigma and discrimination. They remain largely marginalized, disproportionately poorer, frequently unemployed and have higher rates of mortality. Furthermore, they are largely excluded from civil and political processes and are overwhelmingly voiceless in matters that affect them and their society.

Experience shows that when persons with disabilities are empowered to participate and lead the process of development, their entire community benefits, as their involvement creates opportunities for everyone – with or without a disability. Including persons with disabilities and their communities in developmental efforts is important to advance the development agenda.

Thus it is imperative that development efforts around the world include disability issues when determining policies, programs, as well as allocating funds for developmental programs and projects. Mainstreaming disability in development is a strategy for achieving equality for persons with disabilities.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons w ith Disabilities, which is both a human rights treaty and a development tool, provides an opportunity to strengthen developmental policies related to the implementation of internationally agreed development goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), thereby contributing to the realization of a “society for all” in the twenty-first century.

Catherine Hirschwitz

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