Two weeks ago Sarah Beeching of Oshun Partnership wrote about the missing millions – children who face marginalisation and exclusion from education due to physical or mental disabilities. The UK’s own shortcomings in this area notwithstanding, DFID’s pledge “to tackle the great neglect of disability”[i] and “an increased emphasis on disabled people in future development targets”[ii] are an encouraging undertaking in a neglected area of international development.
Education of children and adults with disabilities will be one of the key issues in the International Development Select Committee, but education is only the first of several steps that are required to fully realise the rights of people with disabilities.
Education is a precondition for full participation in social, economic and political life.[iii] Although the right to participate in political life is essential to citizenship, it is often denied to persons with disabilities. This outcome undermines the democratic process.[iv] Active inclusion of all people is especially important where the polity has a record of leaving groups of citizens and their views outside, or attempting to assimilate them to a single dominant culture. In the case of people with disabilities, the dominant culture is ‘ableism’.
The right to education is an example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights, because of its key role in the full and effective realization of other rights.[v]
Democracy is either inclusive or not democratic
Democracy requires that all legally affected individuals be included and given rights of political participation. Hence, in a truly democratic order, the preferences and goals of people with disabilities should count the same as those of all other citizens. People with disabilities should have the opportunity to influence the government, the regulation of institutions, and the conditions of their individual and associational lives.
Article 29 of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires the States to guarantee to persons with disabilities equal and effective enjoyment of political rights, including the right to vote and to be elected. Similarly, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recommended “the urgent adoption of legislative measures to ensure that persons with disabilities, including persons who are currently under guardianship or trusteeship, can exercise their right to vote and participate in public life in an equal basis with others.”[vi] This provision requires States to go further than merely abstaining from steps which might negatively impact the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in political life. Any denial of this right (due to legal capacity requirements, guardianship etc.) is discriminatory, and only exacerbates the historic marginalization and disenfranchisement of people with disabilities.
Participation in the polity can be a significant experience for people with disabilities.[vii] Because there is an interrelationship between the authority structures of institutions and the psychological qualities and attitudes of individuals, being included in the political process is a way of expressing a person’s membership of the polity. For the individual with a disability, therefore, participation in democracy can be of value in and of itself, regardless of the outcome.[viii]
From a public administration point of view, inclusive democracy improves the efficiency and effectiveness of decisions that affect the lives of people with disabilities. Decisions have a better chance of hitting the desired targets and avoiding errors if they originate from or are informed by the preferences and deliberations of the people they are designed for. In this sense, “nothing about us without us” should be heeded not only as a political slogan, but also for the sake of administrative efficiency.
The onus of achieving inclusive democracy sits with democratic institutions: a person with a disability should not bear the cost of her predicament by being denied the political rights enjoyed by the able.[ix] An inclusive democracy, therefore, requires organising the otherwise ableist institutions to maximise the worth and voice of its most disadvantaged members.
Democracy needs full participation of people with disabilities in public and political life
Inclusion of people with disabilities in political life starts with inclusive education. Children have a right to education – and education about political participation. Education that is not inclusive results in either normalisation or marginalisation.
The barriers that persons with disabilities face when participating in political life often reflect similar options. Elimination or correction has been our primary response.[x] Whether it is through lack of information and resources, isolation from centres of power, inaccessible public spaces or voting booths – our democracies demand that people with disabilities talk and reason like “the rest of us”, and walk and carry their bodies around like “the rest of us”. Our demands and exclusionary response to biological or intellectual difference carry in them the danger of turning our democracy projects into “civilising processes”.[xi] In the face of these demands for normalisation and civilisation, how we respond to disability is an indication of our model for society. With the Article 29 of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we must insist on an inclusive democracy just as we must insist on inclusive education. Democracy needs full participation of people with disabilities in public and political life – or it is not democratic.
[iii] For research that suggests education influences participation in political participation positively, see Verba, Schlozman and Brady 1995, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; Acemoglu et al 2005, From Education to Democracy, The American Economic Review, Vol 95, No 2; Glaeser et al 2006, Why does Democracy Need Education? NBER Working Paper Series 12128.
[iv] Gastil, John, Tina Nabatchi, G. Michael Weiksner, Matt Leighninger, 2012. Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement. Oxford University Press, USA.
[v] See United Nations, OHCHR Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, general comments No. 11 (1999) on plans of action for primary education and No. 13 (1999) on the right to education.
[vi] CRPD/C/TUN/CO/1, para. 35.
[vii] Appelbaum, Paul S. 2000. “Law & Psychiatry: ‘I Vote. I Count’: Mental Disability and the Right to Vote.” Psychiatric Services 51(7): 849–63.
[viii] Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. London: Cambridge University Press.
[ix] Beckman, L. 2009. The Frontiers of Democracy: The Right to Vote and Its Limits. Basingstoke [England] ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
[x] Hughes, B. Civilising Modernity and the Ontological Invalidation of Disabled People, in ed. Goodley, Hughes, Davis, Disability and Social Theory: New Developments and Directions, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. p 17