Can you tell us more about how you got involved in working towards the realization of the rights of people with disabilities?
I started to work for Handicap International In 1998, first in rehabilitation and then I had the opportunity to work as a general rehabilitation and inclusion coordinator in Central America. In my twelve years, the contents of the positions I held evolved, and new approaches emerged. For example, the notion of inclusive development began to emerge in early 2000. I also got acquainted with human rights for the first time in 1999, at the occasion of the Independent Living Congress in the U.S. I went there to work as an assistant for the leader of a Nicaraguan disability movement, Orlando Perez, and this gave me the opportunity to hear Judith Heumann and Rosângela Berman Bieler talking about the rights of people with disabilities and independent living. As I was trying to understand this philosophy, I started to think of disability in a different way. All this contributed to my learning a new language for the organization. Human rights started to be included in the programs as a transversal approach across all services, including health, services, labor, accessibility, and access to mobility.
How did you first hear about the negotiation process of the CRPD? How did you get involved in it?
I first heard about the Convention through a mailing list on the Internet called “Disability and Human Rights”. I wasn’t familiar with the UN system at all, so my understanding of it just came little by little. This all eventually triggered a shift inside of me, as I realized the importance of having common mandatory standards. This really convinced me that a Convention would be a tool of great significance for international human rights law. My involvement in the negotiation process occurred through my participation in the so-called “South Project”. The original idea came from Luis Fernando and Philippe, who had met in New York during the Ad Hoc Committee’s first sessions. Knowing that violations of human rights were so significant in the South, there was a clear demand to have leaders from developing countries make their voices heard within the International Disability Caucus, and represent civil society in the negotiation process. This is these leaders began to design the “South Project”. I personally got involved in the operational and logistical part of it.
Could you tell us more about the South project?
The first step in building this project was to get as much sponsorship for the participation of as many representatives as possible. We looked for people who already had influence at a national level in their own countries, who had knowledge about human rights and had shown their commitment. We were quite successful with the selection. The vast majority of the leaders came from Latin America, some of them sponsored by other organizations that we had contacted: Disabled People’s Organizations Denmark DPOD, Leonard Cheshire Disability. DFID was responsible for the funding of the overall coordination of the project, including the trainings in the UN. Once selected, we sent materials to the participants beforehand, so that they could learn about how the negotiation process was unfolding. They arrived in New York two days before the negotiations started and received a preparatory training to familiarize them with the UN system, with the Convention and its importance, as well as with the advocacy mechanisms in place within the UN. During the negotiation process, civil society was channeling its advocacy through the International Disability Caucus. Then, leaders would try to influence the representatives of their own countries to make their voices heard. The participants from the South Project took part in the IDC meetings every day, they also used to have preparatory meetings of their own.
What have been the following steps?
With DFID, we had a commitment to continue the work in the countries. In Nicaragua, we scheduled a two-day workshop on the Convention, for DPO leaders, State representatives and international agencies. As we needed to spread the word and knowledge, we began working together with the Inter-American Institute on Disability and Inclusive Development on the elaboration of a guide or handbook, to be used as a tool to facilitate the understanding of the Convention. We edited a toolkit to present inclusive development as a concept, and organized training modules on the basis of this handbook. We also produced CDs, audios and a guide about the Convention. Luis Fernando worked on the content, and I worked on the methodology. We really had to think about how to adopt a pedagogical approach that made the issue simple, without losing the details. The idea was that people with disabilities could make the Convention their own. We wanted to structure the language to make the Convention accessible, irrespectively of trainee levels of education, in a kind of bite-by-bite approach.
According to you, what have been the main outcomes of the South project?
DPO leaders who took part in the South Project really got to understand how UN processes function, how diplomats make decisions, and how important representativeness is to try to influence the diplomats. Getting to know the people, talking with other leaders surely brought them to another level of understanding. The people who went there and experienced the whole process, went through some kind of “enlightenment”. This moment in time was clearly key, and the starting point for many other things that were to happen later on. Having had these experiences and having built such a network turned the people involved into resources in the field of disability in their countries. As far as the influence of the South Project on the drafting process is concerned, the Convention’s overall approach of inclusive development and human rights would have been completely different if it hadn’t been for these leaders coming from developing countries.
According to you, what have been the main outcomes of the Convention in general?
One of the most important outcomes of the Convention is to have established standards that all countries agreed on, defining the level of human rights that government should pursue. Nevertheless, changes do not happen automatically, we need an active civil society to push them through. During the 10 years that have elapsed since its adoption, the Convention has been useful for making noise about disability, and bringing visibility to disability as a theme. And so, to that extent, having an international convention as a tool has been extraordinarily powerful.
In Nicaragua, there has been a great dynamic. The organizations have taken the Convention as a basis to start working on the elaboration of a national disability law that came out in 2008. This law aligns with the Convention. Organizations have been able to work more closely with the government, which is oriented towards the human right of restitution, and to design new policies, which take the rights of people with disabilities into account. Things happened in the same way in other countries, as organizations were using the Convention as a tool for the elaboration of new laws. Statistically, important improvements have been achieved.
10 years after, where do you think that priorities to implement the Convention are now?
SDGs and other processes are now mainstreaming disability throughout other thematic areas. Issues relating to disabilities are now stepping outside the disability arena to the general arena. The same is happening with the connection between poverty and disability. There is a crucial need to cross-cut these issues, and I am glad that issues like intersectionality between gender and disability have begun to be addressed. More can be done, in order to intersect analyses to consider disability in relation with various contexts, such as war, the safety of children, migration and refugee camps. Another complementary point that I find important is working at a local level. Although, looking at things from a global perspective is important, ultimately it is people with disabilities’ daily quality of life that matters most. I really think that the movement has to see the value of dealing with local authorities, and of finding ways to develop its abilities to do so. The disability movement can also have a positive influence from grassroots up.