11 04 2008

Passion For Reason

Disability rights, forgotten human rights

By Raul Pangalangan

Philippine Daily Inquirer

04/11/2008

http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20080411-129635/Disability-rights-forgotten-human-rights

Manila, Philippines—The Philippine Senate will soon be called upon to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These are the forgotten human rights, rarely the stuff of headlines, banners and mass protests but, when violated, cause pain and sadness just the same. We must support our senators in the righteous work of ratifying this Convention, and support them in palpable and unmistakable terms. Why are disability rights often relegated to the legislative backburner?

First, disability rights are most often violated in what is called the “private sphere” that does not involve the state. When we deal with other, more typical human rights violations, it is the government that is first and foremost “the usual suspect.” As long as the government’s hand is not implicated, it seems, the attitude is that discrimination on the basis of disability is someone else’s problem.

Consider censorship and its chilling effect on free speech, for instance, and you might think of, say, the secretary of justice and his “media advisories.” On the other hand, when it comes to respecting the rights of persons with disabilities, the most typical culprit is usually a private person. It can be a bank that refuses to allow a blind person to deposit a P5,000 crossed check. It can be a 5-star hotel that initially balks at building a wheelchair ramp because it didn’t blend with the design of its driveway. It can be a cab driver too impatient to wait for a paraplegic’s wheelchair to be folded and kept in the trunk.

I learned that recently Cebu Pacific Air—and I’m otherwise a fan of this airline, I hasten to add, because they taught me the supreme convenience of booking flights via the Internet—refused to allow 10 deaf passengers on a flight to Boracay. All 10 were already seated inside the plane, when the crew told them to disembark, citing their policy that blind and deaf passengers had to be properly accompanied in order to be treated as “regular passengers.” If unaccompanied, “he/she may be accepted for carriage provided he/she can take care of himself/herself on the ground and in-flight.”

The irony was that four members of the group were visiting Americans who had flown all the way to the Philippines on their own, without a hitch, and had demonstrably met the internationally stringent standards of other airlines. They had come to attend the grand centennial of the Philippine School for the Deaf, the oldest such school in the Philippines. They hadn’t been apprised of the policy in advance. Worst of all, though they were promised a full refund, what they received was short by P590, the agent’s service fee apparently. (In the end, only two of the passengers were allowed to board.)

Second, there are functional grounds for exclusion. Cebu Pacific, for instance, can cite the need to communicate to the deaf passengers in case of an emergency, which brings us to the third reason: Equal treatment is not cost-free. In the case of the deaf passengers, it entails either a companion (cost to be borne by the deaf passenger) or administrative arrangements to meet the specific disability (cost to be borne by the airline).

The misconception, however, is that the other, more infamous human rights violations are different: that they always entail state action, cannot be explained by any practical rationale whatsoever, and are cost-free. That is not true. Ideas may be censored by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, but they may also be stifled by teachers or school administrators—except now we pierce the veil of state action and ask “What are the victim’s rights?” rather than “Who violated his rights?” Historically, racial discrimination ratified in the law the inequalities in education, opportunities and wealth that existed in fact—except now we know better, and know in our hearts that bigotry can always parade itself as race-neutral and functional. And finally, all equality claims entail costs: maternity leave entails a few months’ paid leave and can wreak havoc with personnel management—except that now we have arrived at a consensus that mothers have a right to be in the workplace and that we must all chip in to secure that place, for their sake as well as our consciences.

I had earlier written a piece titled “The ‘disabled’—and us, the temporarily abled,” and called upon the “robust and healthy to see themselves in the shoes, nay, in the wheelchairs, of persons with disabilities,” since we all are merely “biding our time until our [own] powers wither away: our eyes dim, the hearing fades, the knees and joints corrode” and the inevitable disabilities come upon all lives.

In the Philippine campaign to ratify the Disability Rights Convention, the real impediment is one of attitude and philosophy. Our message should be, in the words of the Supreme Court speaking through Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, that equality is “rooted not merely on charity or accommodation, but on justice for all” and that these are “legal rights [that we must protect] not as a matter of compassion but as a consequence of law and justice.”

The Disability Rights Convention asserts the universal claim to equal dignity, but now we fight the battle in the trenches in Manila. Here we find deep-seated cultural biases, a combination of Darwinian indifference and fatalistic resignation. Yet precisely because the local culture is largely inhospitable to claims by persons with disabilities, precisely for that reason we must secure their claims by law and, given native biases, by an international law that the global community can oversee.

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