• Many people still see persons with disabilities (PWD) as objects of pity
  • We can change this paradigm with a collective effort
  • 2020 can be the year we say 'no!' to the harrassment of or discrimination against PWD

Unlike many people, I was not shocked when I read about the recent incident at the Oxford Union, a prestigious British debating society. A blind student, Ebenezer Azamati, was forcibly removed from the debating hall. He was then charged with violent misconduct. All he had done to warrant such mistreatment was to cling onto the seat he had reserved.

As a blind person myself, I am all too familiar with such dehumanizing treatment. Often persons with disabilities (PWDs) are treated differently, simply because we look, act, move or communicate differently. But should our differences, stemming from disabilities that we did not choose, be an excuse or justification for others to treat us as lesser individuals?

What did surprise me, however, was where it had happened: The United Kingdom. A country that has passed an Equality Act and a Disability Discrimination Act, and that has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Since 1992, people around the world have come together annually on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities to reaffirm their commitment to work together "for a better world that is inclusive, equitable and sustainable for everyone, where the rights of PWDs are fully realized", as António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, has put it.

Riding on decades of good work by the United Nations in the field of disability, the CRPD has advanced the rights and wellbeing of the disabled. Furthermore they have also implemented the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other international development frameworks.

Even though many governments have adopted a more contemporary position on disabilities with accompanying policies and legislation, the general population remains rooted in the medical/charity model of disability. They see the disabled as objects of pity who require sympathy, help or fixing. These interactions dehumanize and segregate PWDs. When one lives solely in a world of handouts and tokenistic gestures of goodwill promoted by corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, no dignity is earned, nor will any respect be gained.

Mobilising Action for Inclusive Societies

Recent years have witnessed some of the largest protests in human history. People are taking to the streets amid a desire for change, putting pressure on decision-makers for urgent and courageous leadership to find sustainable and inclusive solutions to some of the major challenges ahead of us.

A range of forces are at play. By 2022, some 60% of gross domestic product will be digitized - but current education systems are failing to prepare people for decent work in this future. Based on current trends, it will also take approximately two centuries to close the global economic gender gap. Meanwhile, the world’s richest 1% are on course to control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030.

To tackle these challenges, Mobilising Action for Inclusive Societies is one of the four focus areas at the World Economic Forum's 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit. A range of sessions will bring stakeholders together to take action that will bolster local entrepreneurship and innovation, while making growth more equitable.

As long as the disabled are viewed as lesser or alien, dehumanizing incidents like the one at the Oxford Union will continue to be a common occurrence. Many incidences of disability-related harassment and discrimination have gone, and will continue to go, unchallenged. Despite protective legislation, sadly, little can be done to address the dignity that has been wilfully trampled upon. This leaves me to conclude that decency and respect for a fellow human being cannot be regulated through legislation alone.

In comparison, the environmental conservation movement has gained enormous traction in recent times. People from all backgrounds have united, spoken up and gathered a multitude of resources to fight climate change. We can be assured that steps taken today will ensure our existence tomorrow. We feel the pain and know there is a heavy price to be paid when our air and water is too polluted and our climate is becoming too extreme. We feel the scorn of others when we harm our planet. The citizens of the world have since banded together and taken urgent strides to slow down and hopefully reverse the effects of climate change. Through this, we are educating ourselves and our future generations about the virtue of being kind to our planet.

Why don’t incidences of harassment and discrimination against the disabled capture the same attention and action by people around the world? It wrenches my heart to consider that the dignity of the disabled and equal opportunities for every human being are less virtuous or deserving causes. The media and people around the world condemn the incident at the Oxford Union simply because of where it happened. Action was taken only because of the potential reputational fallout. Simply put, a few people who sat back and did nothing to help Mr Azamati suffered some painful damage to their reputations.

As a global citizen who happens to be blind, I have had the privilege of travelling to many different countries. Of the many that I have visited, Japan stood out the most. Perhaps due to their experiences from the ravages of war and the resulting disabilities, the Japanese are generally more gracious towards the disabled. In my many visits, I have yet to be discriminated against. I have been treated not only with dignity but have always been offered help respectfully when needed.

Although the sum of my experiences is not quantifiable data, I cannot say I have had the same experience elsewhere. The Japanese have a strong societal will not ony to keep their country clean, but also to treat the disabled with respect and dignity.

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology has been, and will increasingly be, pushed to the forefront. Many PWDs will not have the opportunity to use many of these life-changing technologies; without a doubt, technology will widen the divide between those with and those without disabilities. On the other hand, robots and machines of all sorts will engage with us in our daily lives. Automated security systems, for example - if programmed ethically - could eliminate discrimination like the episode at the Oxford Union altogether.

Despite the alarmism around the rise of AI, humans are not facing extinction any time soon. Day to day interactions between those with and without disabilities are set to continue.

So how do we, as citizens of our civilized world, propose to treat the billion of us who happen to be disabled?

If we believe that sentient life is sacred, then what are the steps we can take to cultivate the virtues of kindness to one another, and of respect for all human beings? What we need is for this to become a fundamental societal value; a value we will want to pass down the generations.

As we step into 2020, I wonder if the world’s seven billion people can unite to exhibit a collective moral will, to shout “NO!” to anyone harassing or discriminating against those of us who happen to be disabled? Because as a civilized world, we are interdependent and, ultimately, responsible for one another.