Media Library


Remarks at the Fourth International Summer School on Disability Law and Policy

Nui, Galway, 29th June 2012

“Assisted citizenship must be the governing concept in future policy dealing with those with special needs”, says President D. Higgins
Tá an-áthas orm bheith i bhur láthair ar an ócáid seo. Tá mé thar a bheith buíoch daoibh as an cuireadh agus an fáilte forchaoin a chur sibh romham.
NUI Galway President Dr. James Browne, Professor Gerard Quinn, staff of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, members of the Governing Body, students, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here with you today to launch the 4th International Summer School in partnership with the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, which this year deals with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This, as you know, is a convention that I strongly support and which, as a public representative, I called upon successive Governments to ratify. It is gratifying, therefore, to have the opportunity to speak to you all today at this important event.

As you will all be aware many countries, in progressing the disability issue, have taken the UN Standard Rules on Equalisation of Opportunities for People with Disabilities as the benchmark document in developing their own strategies.

These Rules were the springboard for action, highlighting as it did the plight of people with disabilities, who were clearly seen to be at risk of having their rights denied or ignored at the level of social policy making.

In 2006 almost 13 years later the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was published, to which Ireland became a signatory in March 2007. Ratification of this Convention awaits enactment of legislation. However, in order to ensure that this ratification is effective and productive, Ireland will not ratify until ready to fully apply the convention, the enactment of new Mental Capacity legislation being a main issue to solve, prior to ratification of this Convention.

I mo chéad óráid mar Uachtarán anuraidh dúirt mé go mbeadh sé mar phríomhaidhm agam saoránacht chuimsitheach a bhaint amach ionas go bhfaigheann gach saoránach sa tír cothrom na féinne. Bhíodh clár priosúnachta agus deighilte ann in Éirinn san am atá thart chun dul i ngleic le ceisteanna míchumais. Bhí an chuma sin ar an scéal go dtí le déanaí chun na fírinne a rá. Níor tugadh áit infheicthe sa sochaí do dhaoine a raibh meabhairghalar orthu – uaireanta níor tugadh cearta an duine dóibh agus chónaidís in institiúidí scartha ón pobal. Bhíodh saol acu ar imeall an phobail mhóir.

[When I was inaugurated last year as President of Ireland I stated that, in implementing the mandate I have been given, I will seek to achieve an inclusive citizenship where every citizen participates and everyone is treated with respect. There was a time when Ireland depended largely on a programme of incarceration and segregation to respond to disability issues. In fact, it has been the case that until relatively recently persons who experienced mental illness were largely invisible within our society – sometimes denied their basic human rights and warehoused in institutions disconnected from the community – pushed to the margins, the periphery of normal everyday life. ]

Thankfully, we have, in recent decades, seen a seismic change in society’s attitude to fellow citizens living with disabilities and how these citizens are viewed and treated. An important key milestone on this journey to change was the publication of a Green Paper, in 1984, highlighting the priority areas that would need to be addressed in order to facilitate the social inclusion of people with disabilities. A further milestone was the acceptance of the need to engage a mainstream response to the disability question in Ireland, an acceptance which lead to the establishment of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities in 1993. The commission reported on what needed to be put in place for people with disabilities in order that they could achieve social inclusion and equal participation. In drawing up this report we, as a nation, accepted that the UN standard rules was a key document in the future development of disability policy. Following the recommendations set out in the Report of the Commission, a National Disability Strategy was launched in 2004.

We have, therefore, come a long way from the days when a disability meant automatic segregation, disenfranchisement and being placed at the margins, or even outside, of normal society. Despite these advancements, however, things are still by no means perfect. If we are to have a truly inclusive citizenship we need to acknowledge the importance of all citizens being accorded equal recognition as a person before the law. Denial of this basic right diminishes, dilutes or simply denies all other rights. On the other hand an admittance of this truth is a statement of recognition and understanding of the critical need to provide the appropriate supports to people with disabilities in order that they can be allowed to exercise their legal rights.
It also forces us to confront some of the fundamental issues around the equality of people with a mental disability which include combating stigma and discrimination against persons with disabilities, promoting human rights, promoting change in attitudes and behaviour and providing appropriate supports and opportunities to allow those with mental-health problems to more fully contribute to their communities, their society and their country.
If we are to effectively address these critical issues, we must look to the general principles contained in Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Principles that support and value the innate dignity and autonomy of persons living with disability, and espouse their freedom to make their own choices. They also recognise their right to be participative citizens whose individual voices and unique skills, opinions and energy can contribute so much to society.
We must seek to move to a culture of assisted citizenship, where a member of society with a mental disability may receive appropriate support in making decisions without relinquishing their right to actually make that decision themselves. In this way we can ensure that freedom of choice is not withheld from those with mental disabilities and that society relates to them in a way that does not diminish their right to exercise legal capacity.

By depriving citizens of the right to represent themselves and to make important decisions regarding their lifestyle and their medical care we fail to promote their inclusion in society and we contradict the principles to which we should aspire; principles which espouse the upholding of a social rather than a medical model of disability and which require the integration of the fields of mental health law,
non-discrimination, and legal capacity.

It is positive and encouraging that thinking in relation to disability in this country by government departments, service providers and people with disabilities, has moved away from responding to disability solely as a health issue; that we are seeing an increasing and welcome recognition of disability as a social concern and of the need for different measures to be implemented in order to change people’s attitudes and reduce the stigma associated with disability.

We accept, however, that more has to be done in our quest to tackle these difficulties and I hope that over the next week, while accepting the developments already made, maybe you can discuss and explore how best we can adapt the legislative developments already achieved in order that those developments can satisfy the requirements of the Convention. I believe that this can be achieved if we adopt a collaborative approach and work more closely together to maximise the effectiveness that harnessing our resources and skills base can bring.
Once again, thank you for your very warm welcome today. I hope that this week will help you in your academic and professional lives and in using the convention to remove the barriers in order to ensure that people with disabilities have the services and resources available to them to live their lives as independently as possible.
Finally, I would like to thank the Centre for Disability Law and Policy for the vital contribution you make to informed thinking on disability related policy and issues in this country. This summer school and the other educational opportunities that you afford to students will educate them in the policies and reforms required to ensure that people with disabilities can be treated as Equal Citizens in Irish Society and that once ratified the requirements of the Convention will become the benchmark for all disability related policies.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.