Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD)

8th International Disability Rights Summer School

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20 June, 2016

From Monday, 20th to Friday 24th June 2016, the Programs Manager of the Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD) joined 150 disability activists, academicians, advocates and civil society representatives at the International Disability Law Summer School which takes place annually at the NUI Galway University, hosted by its Department of Disability Law and Policy.

This is the eighth time the summer school was being held at the University, and in recent years the Summer School has adopted a general theme. The overall theme of this year’s Summer School was “how Civil Society can, with the right knowledge, insights and skills, capitalize on the ‘new politics of disability’ opened up by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) around the world in both developed and developing countries.”

It is envisaged that this emphasis on effective advocacy will build on successive Summer Schools that have focused on various substantive rights and themes.  The 8th Summer School examined highly innovative and creative advocacy from around the world – for example, what has worked, what doesn’t work, the surprise advances and the unexpected setbacks.

The participants of the summer school were learning from those at the front lines of change across a range of issues and with a highly impactful track record. They are learning from advocates in many different countries and especially from the developing world.

During the opening session, Senator Harkin, a US Democrat, who was a senator from Iowa (1985 to 2015) and he is deservedly known as the ‘father’ of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was one of the key speakers. The Senator shared his personal experiences regarding his role in the advocacy and drafting process of the legislation that changed the landscape of America by requiring buildings and transportation to be wheelchair accessible, and to provide workplace accommodations for persons with disabilities.

“So how did I get started in this?  I was in the military at the time when the Civil Rights Act was passed, then I got out, and became involved in government, but my own personal story is I grew up, along with a brother who was deaf.  And watching what happened to him    he was born hearing, but he had an illness that left him profoundly deaf, so as a young boy he was taken out of the home, sent far away to live in an institution, and to go to a deaf school, away from his friends, away from his family, away from his community, away from his church, and the school was called the Iowa School for the Deaf and Dumb,” he narrated.

Senator Harkin acknowledged that when he first got into the senate, he realised that other Senators and Congressmen had even less knowledge about disability than he did.  They were not knowledgeable about disability policy in particular.  To them it was institutionalization, patronization, taking care of people, and low expectations.

So he further realised that the toughest barriers really were attitudinal barriers, the attitude of people. For this reason, a lot of times people used to ask him if it was more important to change attitudes first and then get the laws changed.

“My response is no.  Sometimes you have to change the laws, like we did, and then as people with disabilities become accessible, travel, go to theatres, work, go to school, go to social events, then people start to think differently, and then they begin to realize, maybe people with disabilities can do a lot more than what I thought,” he said.

He therefore urged delegates to be resolute in their fight for inclusive laws in various parts of the world, ensuring that laws are not just in place but they are also enforced

The 8th Summer School afforded the participants an opportunity to stand back and reflect on their own advocacy and other strategies as well as sharing their experiences with a very diverse group. It was also looking at how civil society can amplify its voice by working in partnership with National Human Rights Institutions and with the many disability law clinics emerging throughout the world in universities. 

The Summer School gave participants an opportunity to reflect on the overall environment and especially the relative closure of space for civil society in many places in the world and its implications for disability rights advocacy.

The proceedings were highly interactive with plenty of break-out space to reflect in smaller groups, especially about effective advocacy strategies in different countries. The participants were encouraged to share their own experience as much as possible since much of the deep learning comes from these interactions. Much of the proceedings were being videoed and placed on the Centre’s YouTube site here.

The initial morning - with Senator Harkin and others - was live-streamed.