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We, Disabled People, the Global Uncontacted Tribe

In Being a World Citizen, Children's Rights, Conflict Resolution, Democracy, Disabled people, Human Development, Human Rights, Social Rights, Solidarity, United Nations on December 3, 2018 at 8:09 AM

By Bernard J. Henry

What is an “uncontacted tribe”? Come on, you’ve heard of them. These are native communities living in their traditional forest or island habitat, following their millennia-old, nature-based lifestyle and refusing contact with the outside world. Since Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate for the presidency of Brazil, won the election on October 28, the future of Brazilian uncontacted tribes lies in the balance as Bolsonaro pledged during his campaign to have all these tribes wiped out.

One would assume that an uncontacted tribe is logically a people living in one single place, not a group scattered throughout the world, thus being more appropriately called an “uncontacted diaspora”, although the expression wouldn’t make much sense. If that’s what you think, then, think again.

This world of ours is indeed home to a global uncontacted tribe. The tribe has a name – disabled people. And I happen to be one of them. You may be glad that you’re not.

The Real Wretched of the Earth

If you have the firm belief that you could never live with a single one of your rights being violated or not properly implemented, then, indeed, be glad you’re not of our own. Disabled people, currently one billion people making up 15 per cent of the world’s population,are the largest minority in the world and, indignantly enough, the category of human beings whose rights are the most blatantly ignored and violated.

Poverty hits us hard, as, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), eighty per cent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries and studies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that disability rates are significantly higher among groups with lower educational attainment in OECD member states. Among the world’s poorest people, says the World Bank, 20 percent have some form of disability and their communities view them as the most disadvantaged.

Disability doesn’t even spare women and children. A 2004 survey in Orissa, India, found that virtually all the women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25 per cent of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6 per cent of women with disabilities had been forcibly sterilized. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that 30 per cent of street youths are in some way disabled. Mortality for disabled children may be as high as 80 per cent in countries where underage mortality has, overall, decreased below 20 per cent, says the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, adding that, in some cases, it seems as if children are being “weeded out”. Due to malnutrition, diseases, child labor and other causes, disabled children in developing countries are projected to increase over the next thirty years.

When not faced with ignorance, as the OECD says an average 19 per cent of less educated people have disabilities, compared to 11 per cent among the better educated, we must cope with the consequences of armed conflict and violence. The WHO estimates that, for every child killed in warfare, three are injured and left with a permanent form of disability. In some countries, up to a quarter of disabilities result from injuries and violence.

While local uncontacted tribes strive to keep away from “civilization”, we, the global uncontacted tribe, try to fit in but get pushed back by everyone, everywhere. Being a global tribe, the issues we face can rightly be called global issues. But seldom are found global solutions, let alone sought to begin with.

A Global People with No Global Rights

It wasn’t until 2006 that a billion inhabitants of planet Earth saw their rights formally enshrined in a binding treaty – the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed on March 30, 2007. The Convention came into force on May 3, 2008 and, to date, 177 countries are States Parties. A specifically-dedicated United Nations (UN) agency, UN Enable, is tasked to ensure that the Convention is respected and enforced throughout the world. And even obtaining that didn’t come easy.

In 2004, the U. S. Administration, then led by President George W. Bush and at odds with much of the world over the Iraq war, opposed the Convention with all its might and argued that national laws within individual countries would always be better than a world treaty. Save that only 45 countries have anti-discrimination and other disability-specific laws, whose background varies heavily from country to country and makes it impossible to have a common global pattern of law emerge from domestic legislation.

In the U. S., disabled people were part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, which landed them laws granting formal rights binding on federal, state, and local government and courts. By contrast, in France, disabled people started to gain specific rights after World War I, when so many veterans returned from the battlefield with injuries for life, needing either specific welfare pensions or assistance in finding a job. In the latter case, French disabled people had to wait until 1975 for a broader law, which was itself succeeded only in 2005 by a more thorough law, in both instances thanks to the determination of one man – Jacques Chirac, who was Prime Minister in 1975 and President in 2005, and whose daughter Laurence, who died in 2016, was gravely disabled. France is a State Party to the Convention, while the U. S. is only a signatory.

The Convention does not allow UN Enable to recognize and register persons as disabled people in the absence of a national framework, in the style of UNHCR which registers refugees in those countries without a national asylum agency. A shameful instance of national sovereignty without the limitations that would guarantee the greater good for everyone. Making us, disabled people, even more of a global uncontacted tribe.

We Are World Citizens – Sometimes World Leaders, Too

Are we doomed to remain forever global outcasts, a global uncontacted tribe as no one wants to contact us, at least without being judgmental and paternalistic toward us? Can we ever fit into society? To borrow a quote from Mark Twain, some of us “did not know it was impossible, so they did it”. And their names may just astound you.

Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist. John Nash, the American mathematician, whose life inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind. Vincent Van Gogh. Ludwig van Beethoven. Frida Kahlo. Tom Cruise. Robin Williams. Stevie Wonder. Ladyhawke, the New Zealand singer and musician who became world famous in 2008 with her worldwide hit Paris is Burning. To name but a few.

Others still made it to top government posts. Joaquin Balaguer, former President of the Dominican Republic. Wolfgang Schaüble, several times a Federal Minister and now Speaker of Germany’s Federal Assembly (Bundestag). Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In the United States, Robert Dole, a longtime Senator from Kansas and the Republican presidential candidate in 1996, as well as his recently-deceased fellow Senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona – and, most importantly, two former Presidents, both Democrats, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no less.

The latter won four presidential elections, got his country out of a major economic and social crisis, won World War II and created the United Nations – having done all that from a wheelchair. For an uncontacted tribe, we may not be deemed a completely useless portion of the world’s population.

Don’t Look at Our Name – Look at Our Selves

Even the name “disabled people”, coined by the non-disabled to refer to us, seems to have become more than this world can bear. Some are now using the name “differently abled”, at the very risk of stressing how different we are while we need to be recognized for our specificities but also for our similarities to the so-called “able” people. What’s in a name? Too much.

Disabled people need to be considered for what they are – people forced to live with a disability that requires special attention from society, while each of them retains his or her own self, skills and, unlike what our name suggests, abilities.

December 3 was proclaimed International Day of Disabled Persons in 1992, through UN General Assembly Resolution 47/3. Every year, the same question is asked of the people of the world: Why are you so afraid of the global uncontacted tribe? What makes you think they cannot be but a burden to society? Wouldn’t it be better for both you and them if you would only choose a more inclusive lifestyle that creates equal opportunities, regardless of (dis)ability?

And the world continues to wonder. It sees the global uncontacted tribe. It talks to us. But it uses a language we cannot understand, for its words cannot convey our own thoughts. And uncontacted we remain.

If you really want to contact us, just start by realizing that what you call “disability” originates in your own minds. We, the global uncontacted tribe, hold fortunes in knowledge and experience, different from yours. Please let us help you make this world a better place.

Bernard J. Henry is the External Relations Officer of the Association of World Citizens.

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