Ursula Naue, Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Political Science, University of Vienna, Austria, Member of the Austrian Independent Monitoring Committee on the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Before November 2008, I analysed Austrian disability politics and policies from a rather distant scientific perspective – even though informed by my own personal story. But then, on 4 November 2008, I was appointed as one of the members of the Austrian Independent Monitoring Committee on the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In the Committee, I represent the field of scientific research and teaching.
This literally changed my life. From this day onwards, I mutated into an activist who addresses deficits in Austrian disability politics and policies in a straight and direct manner. I do this in my work in the Monitoring Committee (when assisting to write one of our statements), I do this in my lectures which I give for the Committee (speaking to politicians, officials, and persons with and without disabilities in general), and I do this in my courses at the university where I try to institutionalise Disability Studies as part of the Political Science curriculum.
During the last four years, I immersed into Austrian disability politics and policies and – even though my approach is always a comparative one – did not realise that the rights-based approach towards disability politics and policies, as currently exercised in Austria, is not a Europe-wide one.
But then, the DSA Conference in Lancaster took place not many days ago. I arrived at this conference with the idea that many people will discuss the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and will work on a scientifically informed way to implement the CRPD in Europe as soon as possible – and most of all, as thorough and effective as possible. My own presentation at the Lancaster Conference was titled ’The Austrian National Disability Action Plan 2012-2020 in the light of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or: What is participation?’. I hoped to get practical suggestions about how to get the Austrian goverment and the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection (which is responsible for Austrian disability policy) to implement the CRPD in a meanigful way. At the present moment, the Austrian government and the Ministry of Social Affairs just pretends to implement the CRPD, but having a closer look not only at the National Action Plan, it becomes obvious that the officially repeatedly addressed paradigm shift in Austrian disability policy from the individual/medical towards the social model of disability has not yet taken place.
But what happened at the conference in Lancaster? Nearly nobody mentioned the CRPD in his/her presentations more than one – even though important – aspect of how to ameliorate the situation of persons with disabilities.
This made me think: Why is it that we in Austria attach so much importance to the CRPD and the effective and thorough implementation of this Convention? Why are we as a Monitoring Committee so much driven by the idea that the CRPD is a meaningful way to really induce a paradigm shift towards the social model of disability, and towards disability policies and policy documents which are not only waste paper, but in fact have a positive and concrete impact on persons’ lives? Is it just for the sake of being part of the Committee? No, it is not. Because for me (and the other members of the Committee), it is exactly this rights-based approach which builds – after so many years of struggle for not being normalised but accepted – the basis for living a life on an equal basis with persons without disabilities, as laid down in Art 1 CRPD. And this is due to the fact that the CRPD – transported via the work of the Monitoring Committee – is in fact empowering. Not only in its wording itself, but through the importance it got during the last years for persons with disabilities (not to mention that it also has an impact on the ’general public’ as laid down in Art 8 CRPD).
In Austria, persons with learning disabilities have always been politically active. But with the ’assistance’ of the CRPD, persons with learning disabilities now claim their rights in a much more direct way. This has, inter alia, been facilitated by the public meetings organised by the Monitoring Committee which take place twice a year. In the context of these public meetings, persons with learning disabilities are important speakers in the discussions about certain topics. So far, the Monitoring Committee put i. a. the following topics up for discussion: Inclusive education, violence and abuse, supported decision-making, and personal budget. Accessible education for all will be the theme of the next public meeting – the last one organised by the current Monitoring Committee. The current Committee – which, by the way, works on a voluntary basis – will finish it’s job by 25 October 2012.
I am proud of what we have done so far as a Monitoring Committee and I don’t think that this feeling is indecent when working as a policy analyst. But the important thing is not my personal experience but the fact that the CRPD already shows an impact on persons’ lives and their political ’behaviour’. Even though in the context of the development of the National Action Plan, the Ministry of Social Affairs did not enable participation by persons with disabilities from their side, disability organisations in Austria claimed their right to participate and gave their opinion on the draft version of the National Action Plan. About 100 (!) documents with relevant ideas on how to ameliorate the draft version were sent to the Ministry which shows that persons with disabilities do not only have the expertise to participate in policymaking processes, but have to be involved policymaking (as laid down in Art 4/3 CRPD). The CRPD empowered persons with disabilities in Austria to claim their right to participate even though – as the CRPD argues – it should work the other way round (and governments and ministries of countries that have ratified the CRPD have to involve persons with disabilities in policymaking processes).
A rights-based approach towards disability policies and politics might be understood by some practitioners and also scholars as a ’toothless’ tool, but the Austrian case shows that it also can happen very differently. Maybe, somewhere else, this works without the CRPD, but the Austrian case seems to be a paramount example for the impact of the Convention on empowerment and claiming what makes oneself an equal part of society: (Human and Fundamental) rights, which frame and shape one’s whole life course, regarding education and training, work, but also private and family life and sexuality.
For me personally, these four years in the Monitoring Committee were the most important years of my scientific life so far. Being a member of the Monitoring Committee for the field of scientific research and teaching, I was able to merge policy analysis with meaningful political practice and also with my personal attitude towards how society and politics should be like.