Disabling Inequality:  Establishing Conditions for a Healthier, Less-Conflicted World, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Dec

Korean Artist

On December 3, the UN commemorated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with day long displays of art and film along with some stirring and inspirational panel discussions led by senior UN officials, influential diplomats and leaders of disabilities-focused organizations.

No fewer than seven Ambassadors followed presentations by the Secretary-General, ASG Bas and NGO leaders on disabilities, affirming their “commitment to action” in relation to the day’s theme, “Inclusion Matters:  Access and Empowerment for People of all Abilities.”   Among the highlights of those presentations was Kenya Amb. Kamau’s call for “inclusive education” to increase options and empowerment for persons with disabilities while also highlighting the degree to which such persons are disproportionately victimized by armed violence. Spain’s Amb. Oyarzun noted that it has been a decade since persons with disabilities “were no longer ignored in policy,” but also cited the long road ahead until equality of access is assured.  Amb. Yoshikawa of Japan and Amb. Bird of Australia highlighted the high mortality rates of persons with disabilities affected by humanitarian disasters and called for greater sensitivity in disaster risk planning.  And the current president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of Korea, cited disabilities as a “cross-cutting” theme, the recognition of which by the UN has allowed it to better “lead by example.”

In a week when diplomats and activists in Paris were trying to stave off a climate disaster, the Security Council was trying to make sense of escalating violence in Burundi, other diplomats were wrestling with ways to make the Council’s sanctions system more fair and effective, and officials in the US were attempting to draw lessons from our latest mass murder rampage, it might seem that there are far more important things to focus on than the plight of persons with disabilities.

I think not.

One of the things that policymakers need to do more, and often fail to do, is to look beyond current crises to the societies left in their wake.   If we are somehow able to disarm our weapons and clean our waterways; if we are able to restore the ice caps and reverse species extinctions; if we are able to end mass atrocities and settle restless populations, then what?   How do we best lay the ground for societies that have some chance of consolidating the gains from crisis resolution in ways that minimize the risk of new crises taking their place?

The uncomfortable truth is that, sometimes, the burdens of our current crises often shield us from exercising this larger policy responsibility.  Discrimination against persons with disabilities surely seems less “existential” than climate and mass atrocity violence until we recognize the degree to which inequalities foment such threats and, indeed, impede their successful resolution.

This recognition is similar to comments made by Guatemala’s Ambassador Rosenthal during his review of the Secretary-General’s recent Peacebuilding report.   Echoing comments from others, Rosenthal noted that peacebuilding has been largely restricted to post-conflict settings.  And while the goal of eliminating recidivist violence is noble, the best way to ensure this is to work more creatively and “further upstream,” to breathe fresh air into our policy structures so to prevent the inequalities and discriminations that are the “first principles” of a dangerous planet.

The presence of wheelchairs, walking sticks and sign-language interpreters in spaces normally filled by persons lacking visible limitations reminds us of how carefully scripted and stubbornly “fashioned” life in our corridors tends to be.   We speak when protocol determines our right to speak.  We dress according to “western” business models even though many of us are not “western.”  And we mostly walk independently from one meeting to the next.   We see with two eyes, hear with two ears.  Our brains have been schooled to grasp the intricacies (and tolerate the tedium) of our policy discussions.  At the same time, we outwardly show little joy, share little of the emotional space that houses our own hidden “disabilities.”

And we have established social structures defined too much by competition and too little by kindness and respect: competition that is based largely on criteria that is both school-driven and limited in scope, with “winners” largely confined to persons with multiple formal credentials, conventional incarnations of beauty, aggressive ambitions, or well-sculpted physiques.  In most every instance, these are persons without recognizable “flaws,” such being determined by the very same people who have managed to avoid having, or at least showing them to the rest of us.

But of course there are manifold skills, talents and contributions beyond our socially-sanctioned ambitions, ones which we need both to solve our greatest challenges and to create those “peaceful, inclusive societies” to which we so often point, hoping that such societies can be successfully crafted such that they can somehow ward off another generation of existential threats.

Nowhere during this day of events was this any more clear than in the art exhibit “Like Wildflowers, Like Stars,” from the Korean artist Kim Geun-tae.  The faces he renders – children living with disabilities – show a range of emotions from confusion to joy.   Some faces appear remote while others are delightfully engaging.  Some of the children appear sick, others are physically incomplete, but few could walk this UN corridor and conclude that these renditions do not represent a veritable cornucopia of potential contributions to the societies that we need and want.

The lessons in the paintings are both simple and numerous, but two stayed with me.   One of the panels asks, “Does this child have cerebral palsy or polio?”  The answer comes:  “I am Min-june.  I am not palsy or polio,”  reminding that none should be defined by our limitations, the visible nor the hidden.  And the second lesson may have greater poignancy.  In a panel that depicts children with disabilities in obvious distress, the artist proclaims, “The harder we feel our lives are, the more firmly we have to grasp each other’s hands.”

Indeed, the more important it is for hands to be extended.

In reflecting on the beauty of the artist’s panels, on the often-wise content panels earlier in the day, as well as on the many grave responsibilities found daily on our policy plates, I cannot but wonder about my own “disabilities” — out of sight for the most part, but not without consequence for others.  For many of these “others” worldwide including persons with disabilities, life is hard now, and our collective response is not with hearts and hands fully extended.  Our crisis reactions are overly militarized; we are too dismissive of each other’s talents and contributions; we are inattentively sending species to extinction and threatening to do the same to ourselves; we do not “step up” often enough with understanding and welcoming hospitality; we allow ourselves to be distracted too often by so many things that just don’t matter.

Thankfully, these are all things we can do more about, some primarily in the realm of policy, others within our private dwellings and local communities.  In the end, as we were reminded this week, one of our best, most sustainable antidotes to social and political crises is to humanize the cultures of discrimination and inequality that now lie at their roots.

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