COSP: “Nothing about us without us"

c_Michele-Lunsford_Handicap-International__COSPpic.jpg

(Pictured: Blandine Bouniol, Handicap International's deputy advocacy director, Jeff Meer, executive director of HI-US, and Katie Smith, member of the Advisory Council of HI-US.)

Earlier this month, a delegation from Handicap International attended the annual Conference of States Parties (COSP) to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) at the United Nations in New York. Handicap International U.S. Executive Director Jeff Meer shares his experience.

There were many notable moments from the 2017 COSP. There was the announcement by Canada that it was joining the evolving consensus on the Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action. Although widely anticipated, the speech by Canadian Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough was exhilarating.

There were the mentions of Handicap International as an important or key actor in plenary speeches by multiple nations, including Burundi and Italy. These international affirmations made all of those in the HI delegation proud.

And there was the announcement by UNICEF of the release of an operational guide to the inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency aid provision. This project, in which HI, along with the International Disability Alliance, was intimately involved, spanned more than two years of effort by staff in Lyon and in the field.

But for me, two moments really stood out among the rest, and gave new meaning to the phrase I heard a lot at the conference from people with disabilities: “Nothing about us without us.”

Mia Farah, a woman with developmental disabilities from Lebanon, gave an opening speech for the conference. In remarks delivered slowly and carefully before more than 100 national delegations and hundreds of NGO representatives in the great hall of the General Assembly, she described what it was like to grow up with a disability in Lebanon, and how she had come to understand the importance of voting. Her voice reached a crescendo when she said: “I know my rights and no one can take them away from me!”

On the conference’s final day, I attended a side session with another member of the HI delegation: Katie Smith of Pennsylvania.  Katie, a member of the HI USA Advisory Council, is a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair. She works at the Peal Center in Pittsburgh, helping young people with disabilities reach their educational and professional goals. Prior to her injury, Katie had been an avid rugby player, and has continued to play her favorite sport – called murderball – in a specially-designed wheelchair.

The session we attended was on the subject of working with children with disabilities. Katie, who had never before participated in a UN meeting, waited until after the panelists had spoken, and then mentioned the vital role that sports can play in the life of a child with disabilities, particularly fostering an ability to advocate for one’s self. She didn’t have to add what a vital role sports has played in her own life.

These two moments, among many others, crystallized for me why we at Handicap International believe so deeply in the importance of the rights enshrined in the CRPD. For some they seem abstract, but for Mia and Katie, the Treaty’s words come to life every day. And for that reason, we must always be vigilant to protect them.