Excuse me if this blog is longer than usual but Nelson Mandela was not usual. Along with a world, I am mourning his passing. However, I am embarrassed to say that I am just learning how deep his fight for equality included persons with disabilities. I am sure there are others who saw him only as he fought to end apartheid.
He was so much more. I am thinking often about the reconciliation he practiced and the strength and grace he derived from it.
I have spent my life working towards the full inclusion of persons with disabilities and I am struck how our work has been derailed and slowed by our own inability to reconcile differences. And how petty they seem in comparison to apartheid. From team members who don’t collaborate, governments that are unreasonable, agencies unwilling to bend and organizations who don’t partner, we could have achieved our goals if we embraced Mandela’s offer of reconciliation.
We are seeking a just world and I wonder how many of us realize that we had a partner in Nelson Mandela. Below is an excerpt from a message by Nelson Mandela to the Conference for the Disabled April 4, 2004:
We in South Africa are celebrating a decade of non-racial, non-sexist, non-discriminatory democracy. We went to the polls in our third democratic election just this past week. All of this stood in celebration of our democracy, based on the values of human dignity, the achievement of human equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.
Under the equality clause in our constitutions bill of rights we affirm that, and I quote:
The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
The constitution continues to affirm that no person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more of the grounds mentioned above.
We have striven to give legislative and regulatory content to these founding precepts in our nation-building constitution. We have in this past decade progressed, slow as it may have been, towards living together in the acknowledgement of the basic equality and right to dignity of all human beings.
We have tried to give special emphasis to the rights of people living with disability. It is so easy to think of equality demands with reference primarily to race, color, religion and gender; and to forget, or to relegate to secondary importance, the vast discrimination against disabled persons.
We cannot claim to reach anywhere near to where a society should be in terms of practical equality of the disabled. We continue to try. We realize that legislation and regulations are not sufficient or the end of the long walk to equality and non-discrimination. Education, raising of awareness, conscientisation, eradication of stigmatisation: these are key elements in achieving non-discrimination against the disabled in practice and in their everyday lives.
A democracy is an order of social equality and non-discrimination. Our compatriots who are disabled challenge us in a very special way to manifest in real life those values of democracy.
It is not a question of patronizing philanthropy towards disabled people. They do not need the patronage of the non-disabled. It is not for them to adapt to the dominant and dominating world of the so-called non-disabled. It is for us to adapt our understanding of a common humanity; to learn of the richness of how human life is diverse; to recognize the presence of disability in our human midst as an enrichment of our diversity.
It’s time to honor his legacy and pledge to work together- governments, organizations and individuals- to achieve the opportunities for persons with disabilities. The legacy of Nelson Mandela could be honored with a simple yet compelling gesture by the United States ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers