2010 Conference: Keynote Address: Accessible Information and Human Rights: From Principle to Practice by Robyn Hunt
This paper was presented at the 2010 conference of the Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities. You can read the full paper below, download the Word version or listen to an audio recording of the presentation. Robyn also posted an extract from this paper on her blog, Low Visionary.
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Robyn Hunt is a founder and director of AccEase, a communications company specialising in accessible information and communications.
She is acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s leading experts in the field of disability, and has been honoured for her work in the disability community. Robyn co-chaired the group that developed the New Zealand Disability Strategy, and contributed to the negotiations for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the UN in her role as human rights commissioner with responsibility for disability.
As an award-winning journalist and communicator she was a founder of New Zealand’s first disability television series, and has worked in a variety of media.
Robyn is a long time member of the New Zealand government web standards working group, representing disabled people. She writes a popular blog about information accessibility and other disability related subjects.
New Zealand and Australia have both ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (CRPD). It is now international law, and part of the international human rights framework. Countries that have ratified the CRPD are subject to national and international reporting and monitoring processes, which include regular reporting to a United Nations monitoring committee on progress. Non-governmental organisations may also submit a shadow report. How do we move from the principled nature of the CRPD to the practical day to day implementation of its provisions? What are the implications, obligations and opportunities for the various parties involved and what changes might the human rights approach bring to current practice. What impact might this have on the daily lives of print disabled people.
Full paper: Accessible Information and Human Rights: From Principle to Practice
Robyn Hunt, AccEase
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to present the opening keynote for the conference.
Disabled people have existed and in some parts of the world still do exist in isolated pockets and ghettos on the margins of communities, with their information needs relegated to poorly funded charitable organisations if they are met at all. Governments often accept little or no responsibility for their information needs. We know that only 5% of print information is ever translated into alternative formats. New technologies create both barriers and opportunities for those who need accessible information in different formats and media.
While some new technologies and channels for communication have begun to break down the walls and barriers, internationally progress has been agonisingly slow without a values-driven philosophical foundation for a changed world view. The international Human rights framework provides a clear and established platform for the development of new ways of designing and implementing policies and procedures, but most importantly for new understandings of disability as a rights issue for a diverse group of people, Disability is no longer a problem to be ‘fixed’ or simply ignored, centred in a deficient individual.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, known affectionately as the CRPD, or even DisCo is the focus for a human rights revolution for disabled people. The conference theme Think globally act locally lends itself very well to an exploration of the new human rights environment for disabled people in the context of access to information.
But how do we move from the principled nature of the CRPD to its practical day to day implementation? What is the significance and the implications, obligations and opportunities for the various parties involved and what changes might the human rights approach bring to current practice? What impact might this have on the daily lives of print disabled people? I hope I can at least begin to answer these questions.
In this speech I am going to cover the following areas:
- A new approach to disability that the CRPD has enabled
- Understanding disability in the CRPD
- Disability and human rights – some history and Brussels sprouts
- The Disability Rights Convention – some important facts
- What does the CRPD say about access to information – there is clear guidance on practical application
- The CRPD in practice
A new approach to disability
The disability rights environment has undergone profound and far reaching changes in the last decade with the addition of the CRPD to the body of international human rights law. The CRPD marks a sea change in the way disabled people and their issues and rights can be understood. These developments present exciting opportunities for fundamental and far-reaching changes to the lives of disabled people.
The CRPD gives disabled people and their issues and concerns voice, visibility and legitimacy. They are no longer objects of charity, but subjects with rights. In the context of information and communication accessibility, the needs of disabled people can no longer be seen as ‘special’, a matter of grace and favour, to be catered for by charities outside the mainstream. Combined with profound technological change this new approach means that a broader view of the meaning of accessible information, and the diversity of people who need it should be taken. It also means that a wider range of people and institutions must take responsibility for making information accessible.
Understanding disability in the CRPD
The CRPD takes a broad and inclusive view of disability, and acknowledges the complexity of the relationship between a person’s impairment and the surrounding disabling social and physical environment. It also recognises that disability is an evolving concept, which allows for change and development.
While the CRPD recognises the specific situations of particular groups of disabled people, it also takes a broad pan-disability approach to the human rights of disabled people. I do the same.
Disability and human rights
It is helpful to have some historical background to the human rights issues.
Until recently disability has been the Brussels Sprouts of the human rights community, the bit everyone left until last and tried to hide so they wouldn’t have to eat it, and when they could avoid them no longer they tried to eat as little as possible. And yet when the time came to unavoidably confront human rights for disabled people it seems States were at least ready to load up their plates. Time will tell how much they will really consume without having to be force fed. It is up to all of us to make sure they eat their greens. After all we know they are good for everyone.
What I am saying here is that despite the protection afforded by the existing international human rights instruments, which should always have applied to everyone, the human rights of disabled people have generally been ignored or misunderstood. The lack of a specific guiding convention has been a barrier for disabled peoples’ human rights progress. Now we have a Convention we can make the most of the opportunity the CRPD offers.
But first I will introduce the Convention and its general significance to disabled people, as the basis for more detailed discussions.
About the Disability Rights Convention
A few important facts about the CRPD
The CRPD is the first UN human rights Convention of the 21st Century.
It was developed in the shortest time of any Convention, being completed, in five years.
It was the first ever to involve disabled people and their organisations, and this involvement had a profound and positive effect on the final content of the Convention.
New technologies such as email and the Internet played an important role in the development, enabling disabled people around the world to be involved in discussion and development of their thinking on advocacy and guidance for states between negotiations at the UN.
Disabled people and their organisations forged international alliances that enabled them to learn from and about each other and to negotiate with and influence states at the UN. Their participation presented the UN itself with some significant accessibility challenges which were tackled with varying degrees of success.
The CRPD includes a mixture of civil & political rights, to be realised immediately and economic social and cultural rights which are to be progressively realised as resources permit. This is not an excuse to do nothing. The two kinds of rights are intermingled, as the ability to vote, one of the civil and political rights, is influenced by the ability to read, the right to education, which is an economic, social and cultural right.
The Convention does not grant any new rights. It interprets the rights everyone has from a disability perspective. It gives states guidance on the implementation of rights included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and of Social Economic and Cultural Rights which have always applied to everyone. Of course disabled people are also included in other conventions, such as the Convention on the rights of the child and CEDAW.
New Zealand and Australia both ratified the CRPD in 2008. It is now international law, part of the international human rights framework. To date more than eighty states have ratified it. While it does not trump national legislation it gives interpretive guidance and subjects New Zealand to international scrutiny through the reporting and monitoring process. Given the leading role New Zealand played in the development of the CRPD I expect international expectations will be high.
Countries that have ratified the CRPD are subject to national and international reporting and monitoring processes, which include regular reporting to a United Nations monitoring committee on progress. Non-governmental organisations may also submit a shadow report. The CRPD clearly articulates the role disabled people have in implementation and monitoring. There are opportunities here for different groups of print disabled people to make their voices heard. The NZ government is currently developing the first national report to the UN, and a coalition of disabled people’s organisations and the Human Rights Commission respectively are developing shadow reports.
What does the CRPD say about access to information?
It is particularly exciting to note that articles of the CRPD relate specifically and directly to print disabled people and accessible information. They give clear guidance on practical application.
Accessibility is one of the principles which underpin the whole convention. That means that everything in the CRPD should be considered with accessibility and universal design in mind.
Articles 9 and 21 consider accessibility in some detail. The provisions are focused on an accessible and inclusive society where
Article 9 Accessibility
1. The countries will eliminate barriers that people with disabilities face in… information, communication and services, this way people with disabilities can live independently and fully live their lives. They (countries) will make rules and put them into practice for:
b. Information, communications, and other things, for example, electronic services and emergency services.
2. The countries will also take action to:…
c. Train people who are involved in accessibility issues on what people with disabilities need when it comes to accessibility;
d. Have Braille signs and easy to read and understand information in buildings open to the public;
e. Provide help, such as readers, sign language interpreters and guides, so people with disabilities can access buildings open to the public;
f. Provide other types of help as needed so people with disabilities can get access to information;
g. Promote access to new technologies for people with disabilities;
h. When looking for, and creating new technology, make sure that accessibility is taken into account early on, so that this technology can be made accessible at the smallest cost.
Article 21 freedom of expression and opinion and access to information
The countries will make sure that people with disabilities have the right to say what they think through Braille, sign language or other types of communication that they choose.
The countries will make sure people with disabilities have the same right as other people to give and receive information, including:
a. Providing information intended for the general public to people with disabilities in formats that are adequate for them without extra cost (for example, Braille);
b. Accepting the use of different ways people with disabilities communicate in official situations;
c. Encouraging private businesses and organizations that serve the public to make their services more accessible for people with disabilities;
d. Encouraging the media to make their information accessible to people with disabilities;
e. Agreeing to, and promoting the use of sign language.
Plain English version 13/05/10
These are specific information accessibility provisions. Other articles of the CRPD include references to accessible information, or imply that it may be necessary for the right to be implemented, for example article 27, work and employment requires reasonable accommodation for disabled people. This might include accessible information.
The CRPD in Practice
What does this mean for disabled people in practical everyday situations? The cynics among you may well be saying – well that’s all very high level and aspirational but nothing will change.
When NZ ratified the CRPD legislation was checked against it to ensure we met the standard it set. Generally speaking our legislation can be said to comply. However the implementation of the CRPD through policy, process and practice can make a difference. Importantly the CRPD provides an interpretive guide for those who have the responsibility to implement and monitor the human rights of disabled people in the real world.
States are responsible for the implementation of the CRPD so governments have a responsibility to make public information accessible. An example in New Zealand has been the passage of the Sign Language Act making New Zealand Sign Language our third national language. The Deaf community have gained great confidence and mana and cultural pride from this development. The growing support for NZ Sign in New Zealand communities has given Deaf “voice,” visibility and legitimacy in practical ways such as more people learning and accepting Sign in everyday settings.
An example of this increased confidence has been that Deaf people successfully pursued access to captioned movies in cinemas, an example of private sector attention to human rights.
While central government has primary responsibility, it is often local government that affects disabled people’s daily lives as much as central government. Access to information can be a necessity for people to participate fully in their communities, to shop, to go to work or study, meet friends and so on. In its inquiry into accessible land transport report The Accessible Journey the Human Rights Commission emphasised that the accessible journey includes access to timetable and other relevant information as well as physically accessible busses, trains and surrounding environments. Some local bodies and public transport providers have begun to incorporate information accessibility features into their services.
Exercising our rights and responsibilities as citizens means that it is important to have accessible information to know about them in the first place. A very clear practical example of the obligation of public bodies to implement disabled people’s human rights is the right to vote in local government and parliamentary elections, (Article 29 participation in political and public life.)
Elections are topical right now. Britain has just held a general parliamentary election. New Zealand has local government elections later this year, and parliamentary elections will be held in 2011 Exercising the right to vote is one of the fundamental civil and political rights in a modern democracy.
During the British election a campaign was run by disability organisations centred on the Polls Apart web site, which has been promoting accessible elections for some time. http://www.pollsapart.org.uk Disabled people and their supporters in the UK have advocated strongly and publicly for an accessible election, in all senses of the term.
The office of the High commissioner for human rights gives some suggestions for the way the right to vote for disabled people should be implemented:
The right to participate in public and political life requires, among other things… that election materials are provided in accessible formats (such as written materials in Braille and television advertisements with Sign Language Interpretations) …”
Monitoring the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Guidelines for Human rights monitors
Professional training series no.17 UN OHCHR 2010
How accessible will our elections be?
Most areas of life covered by the Convention require access to accessible information. I will give an explicit and an implicit example.
To learn children need access to information, Article 24 the right to education) says .
2c. Reasonable changes are made to make sure that people with disabilities get the most out of their education;
d. People with disabilities get the help they need to get the most out of their education;
e. The help for students with disabilities is given so that their individual needs are met.
3a. Arranging that students with disabilities learn Braille or other types of communication, and that they get peer support and mentoring;
b. Teaching sign language;
c. Making sure that especially children who are blind, deaf or deafblind are educated in the most appropriate types of communication so that they get the most out of their education.
4. To help make sure that these rights are put into practice, the countries will hire… teachers who are qualified in Braille and sign languages…
New Zealand Sign Language is now part of the school curriculum, but is still poorly resourced. Government has improved the education resources for alternative formats for children who are blind and vision impaired in the last few years.
New Zealand and Australia are no strangers to natural disasters, (Article 11 situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies.) In the case of such events, it is critical that disabled people know what to do in an emergency, and are well informed enough to be able to be as independent as possible if the worst happens. If they are included in the planning processes, disaster preparedness information is available in a range of formats, and communication is managed in a variety of ways maximum independence will be possible.
As we saw earlier with the captioned movies example, others besides central and local government can implement the CRPD. The Convention encourages the private sector to provide accessibility for disabled people. Banks are beginning to recognise this by starting to consider the accessibility of their web sites, and for the provision of accessible audible ATMs. Some are working on accessibility for Deaf, using the text relay service, NZ Relay. The Bankers Association, working with disabled people and banks have developed guidelines to assist banks provide better services to their older and disabled customers. The voluntary guidelines include advice on accessible information.
The area of information accessibility is sometimes seen as very difficult by both public and private sectors, and considered as purely technical rather than as strategic communications. We have not yet reached the point where accessibility has become ‘business as usual,’ part of the culture, where universal design principles are routinely applied to information.
Where Government departments and other public bodies are providing information accessibly, it is in a fairly piecemeal and ad hoc and individual manner. Forays into plain English are being made and there is a little interest in Easy Read. There are a few video clips of New Zealand Sign Language appearing on web sites and an occasional DVD. Most of the accessible information content at present is directly related to aspects of disability services.
Government has taken a ‘whole of government’ approach with web standards, which has brought some improvements, but despite that many sites are still infested with inaccessible pdfs.
Despite this activity the concept of print disability and the diversity of people who experience it are still generally not well understood in a human rights context.
What can disabled people and their supporters do
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given was “Go with the overt messages.” In other words, the CRPD is written down. New Zealand has agreed to be bound by it. So – what are we waiting for? Approach the issue of accessible information assuming people want to do it, even though we know they might not. It’s a powerful way to advocate for change.
There is also an old saying. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Well that can be done too!
Seriously though, the CRPD is a powerful advocacy tool.
The print-disabled community and supporters have opportunities created by the CRPD to engage with government, local and national, and with other disabled people. Taking an active role will mean disabled people’s human rights progress will be faster. Everyone can:
- Learn about the CRPD and human rights The CRPD can be accessed in a variety of formats through the Office for Disability Issues web site http://www.odi.govt.nz
- Complain constructively and strategically, and as groups if that will be more influential
- Engage with the wider community of print-disabled people to think and act strategically about priorities, and work together to avoid divide and rule – I am aware a strategic alliance has already been formed between the deaf and blind communities. There are others who are print disabled, those who cannot hold a book, those who need easy read because of cognitive disability, people who are dyslexic and more.
- Create a business case for the private sector in particular. They may respond more readily than to a rights based case. The demographics become more compelling each year with a rapidly ageing population with higher rates of impairment.
- Get involved in the monitoring process – There are disability coalitions working on monitoring in both New Zealand & Australia and disabled people must be involved in government implementation and reporting.
- Acknowledge and celebrate best practice, progress and successful outcomes. Give credit where credit is due.
The CRPD and the human rights approach offer a new and powerful framework for those advocating for accessible information, and providing services to the diversity of print disabled people. Countries that have ratified the CRPD have obligations to disabled people to fulfil. While the CRPD is still relatively new, it is already being used to advocate for change, and has potential to achieve it. Disabled people themselves have a central role to play.
During our discussions over the next few days I hope we can explore the new approaches enabled by the CRPD, and incorporate them into a broad and inclusive practice of information accessibility for all those who encounter barriers to print information and communication.
I will close with the catch cry of disabled people all over the world. “Nothing about us without us” Thank you for your attention.