Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland has pledged concerted and continuous action to protect the rights and needs of people with disabilities.
Speaking at an event on the eve of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Secretary-General underscored the critical importance of eliminating stigmas, barriers and ceilings.
She said: “We have to work harder to remove barriers for all people living with disabilities, both visible disabilities and invisible disabilities.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, and diminished services have greatly impacted the lives and mental well-being of people with disabilities right around the world. How do we build back better, while ensuring that no one is left behind?”
The Secretary-General added: “Our approach and commitment to ‘leaving no one behind’ in the context of disability issues are best understood from the human rights perspective.
“All our citizens have the right to be respected, to be protected and to enjoy safe and secure environments to fulfil their potential. These are not requests for special treatment or favours; they are universal human rights.”
According to the World Health Organisation ‘World Report on Disability’, more than one billion people are living with disabilities. Of this number, about 450 million have mental or neurological conditions. Two-thirds of these individuals will never seek professional medical help, largely because of stigma, discrimination and neglect.
Chaired by the High Commissioner of Antigua and Barbuda, Karen Mae Hill, the event brought together diplomats, disability rights campaigners, special rapporteurs and experts.
Their recommendations included creating a working group on disability rights, targeting the ‘Build Back Better’ strategy on removing barriers and facilitating cultural change, and ensuring people with disabilities have access to healthcare, financial support and information during the pandemic.
They also advocated for the need to renew commitment to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and to review the out-dated policies to empower people with mental health issues.
Mrs Hill said: “I join [the Secretary-General] in sharing my personal commitment and encouraging the Commonwealth to rally around, consistently, the topic of disability rights.
“We need to ensure that we ground this in our policies, our conversations and our actions so that it is not an adjunct to our discussions but mainstreamed in the context of how we plan our policies and strategies.”
She highlighted the experiences of Antigua and Barbuda, which collaborated with the Commonwealth Secretariat to host the ‘I am ABLE 2’ conference last year.
During the event, there was a keen focus on the additional challenges created by the pandemic.
Gerard Quin, who was appointed the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities by the Human Rights Council in October 2020, highlighted the deep-seated inequalities exposed by COVID-19 and warned about the heightened risks.
“What we have learned over the last six or eight months,” he said, “is that the old paradigm on disability hasn't gone away.” He pledged to collaborate with the Commonwealth and outlined strategies and actions to address issues that affect disability. These include the pandemic, climate change, conflict and poverty.
Jamaican Senator Floyd Morris, who is the Caribbean Community Special Rapporteur Disability, added: “The pandemic presents a great opportunity for us to rebuild and strategize for the future. It has shown us how vulnerable we are as human beings.
“We must therefore make a concerted effort to build a genuinely inclusive and non-discriminatory society where persons with disabilities are placed at the front and centre of development.”
In 2021, the Commonwealth is supporting a talk show called Enabled Voices, hosted by Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike.
Watch the promotional video below.