There are 180-220 million young persons with disabilities in the world. That is approximately the same size as the entire population of Brazil. But despite the substantial size of this group, the rights of young persons with disabilities are still not taken seriously. Might that be because of the sad but apparent fact that most decision makers in the world are older men with strong socioeconomic backgrounds and no disabilities? Regardless what reason, strenghtening the representation of discriminated groups in policy making is without a doubt crucial to get these questions higher up on the agenda. The words “nothing about us without us” are important, and should be repeated until decision makers are gradually replaced to better represent the population.
It is essential that young people- regardless of disability, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity are included in the processes of political decision making. This is a precondition for democracy, for achieving sustainable development and efficient political reforms. The youth is not the future – we are as much the present as anyone else, and we demand the right not only to be heard, but also to have an impact in all arenas of society. The most important out of these arenas is the political one, as the very legitimacy of democracy relies on whether or not young persons and other discriminated groups are included or not.
Speaking of the universality of the human rights, one must never forget that they also apply to people with disabilities. Although this might seem obvious, it is far from the reality today.
The life of persons with disabilities is often overshadowed by stigmatization. It is a constant battle to be included, respected and considered to be an independent person. Many of these people live sheltered and uninformed lives, hidden away at home by their relatives and ignored by society. Isolation and exclusion is painful and should not be experience by anyone, not least young people with the deep wish to live out their own potential.
Persons with disabilities are amongst the most marginalized groups in the world. The majority of persons with disabilities live under conditions of poverty. The right and accessibility to high quality education is often denied, and the labor market is rarely willing to let disabled people contribute. This implies an enormous waste of resources not only for every individual whose opportunities in life are drastically limited, but also for society at large, turning down diversity and unique competences.
The fight for the rights of discriminated groups tends to slow down when the economic situation gets turbulent. I am referring to the rights of persons with disabilities , as well as the rights of other discriminated groups such as women, people of colour, the most economically vulnerable and LGBTQ-persons. We cannot let this continue. Fighting discrimination and promoting equality must always be a political priority, no matter the size of the latest decline on the stock market.
Discrimination of those who deviate from the norm sets out from ignorance and fear of diversity. In fact, the norm – white middle-aged men without disabilities- is not the least more normal than a young black lesbian women with disabilities. One must realize that diversity and equality is the most valuable asset a society can gain, but it requires educated and safe citizens who do not feel threatened by those who differ from themselves. Education and social cohesion must therefore be the main tools to fight discrimination and increase the awareness about these issues. We must also take action to ensure that all policies include a non-discriminatory perspective, and that all welfare services and institutions are adapted to the needs of the citizens instead of the other way around.
Education is a key component for social change. But it is also a fundamental right that has to be ensured also for persons with disabilities. Knowledge can be the power to compensate for other challenges, rendering it possible for persons with disabilities to win their own autonomy and shape their own lives. This includes guaranteeing all young people the access to comprehensive sexuality education involving both gender, LGBTQ issues and learning about contraceptive methods. Sexuality education may also empower persons with disabilities – who are more likely to be molested and exposed to sexual abuse- to speak out about their situation.Sexual life of youth with disabilities cannot be taboo, because it’s part of their health and well-being. That is one of the reasons why this session of the Commission is important to persons with disabilities– but also why disability is important when the Commission discusses youth issues.
One way to fight discrimination is through raising awareness. It is important to increase the knowledge about how everyone’s needs and preconditions differ. Norms and stereotypes constitute the basis for discrimination and inequalities by constructing obstacles. They limit the possibilities to influence and the freedom for those who do not conform to the norms. A person sitting in a wheelchair is not the problem. It is the norm that expects everyone to be able to walk that is the problem. Transforming the norms to create a more inclusive society will benefit everyone. What is necessary for some people is good for everyone. All governments of the world should adopt a disability perspective as well as a norm-critical perspective and a youth perspective in decision-making processes.
It is said that society can be evaluated according to how the most vulnerable groups in society are treated. With that said, it is the obligation of all decision makers to not let people down who are dependent on the solidarity and the righteousness of society – as we indeed all are, or could become. Let us start by fully realizing the rights stated in the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities- that would be a very good start.
We wish to see a strong youth perspective at the United Nations High Level Meeting on Disability and Development in 2013. We wish to see a strong disability component in the ICPD+20 Special Session in 2014. And we request that both – youth and disability – are properly addressed in the post Millenium Development Goals, if and when agreed in 2015.