The fourteenth Paralympics Games open today, the pre-cursor of which dates back to the last time London hosted the Olympics. The brainchild of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital for disabled veterans of World War II, the event was staged to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics. It has grown dramatically since then. This year’s Games, the biggest yet, will see 4,200 athletes, from 160 countries, compete in 20 different sports medal events.
London 2012 saw the first ever double amputee compete in the Olympic Games. South African, Oscar Pistorius competed in the men’s 400 metre race and was a member of the 4 × 400 metre relay team. This and the amazing achievements we will be seeing during the Paralympics over the next twelve days should be enjoyed and celebrated. However, I am determined we also use London’s summer festival of sport to highlight the need for further progress protecting the human rights of those with disabilities worldwide. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that the legacy of this Paralympics should not only be to ‘inspire a generation’ but to promote the equal rights and freedoms of people with disabilities and to foster their inclusion in all aspects of society here and around the world.
In many countries people with physical and mental disabilities still face discrimination and barriers in many parts of their lives. For example, the International Disability Rights Monitor report on Asia describes the lack of education opportunities and support for disabled people in the region despite those countries guaranteeing universal access to education. The lack of sufficient education is reflected in the educational outcomes for people with disabilities. In Vietnam, only 34 percent of people with disabilities are literate, as compared to over 90 percent of the general population, and in the Philippines less than one-third of people with disabilities ever advance beyond elementary schooling. Another example is highlighted by the campaign group, Disability Rights International, who are working for the end of institutionalisation of children with mental disabilities. They have found instances where children are locked in cages, trafficked into forced labour and intentionally starved.
As the Foreign Office Minister for Human Rights, I have encouraged and overseen programmes aimed at raising awareness of disability rights globally, working with international partners and institutions to improve standards for those who are disabled around the world. The Coalition Government is committed to equality for disabled people here at home and abroad. We are working hard to promote and to shape the legacy of the Paralympics on the global stage. This afternoon, I hosted the future Olympic and Paralympic host nations, South Korea, Russia and Brazil, in the launch of a communiqué pledging to harness the potential of their Games to promote human rights. The Communiqué links the Olympic principles of equality and non-discrimination to the values underpinning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, the year of the last London Olympics. The UN Convention, now ratified by 109 countries, not only creates legal obligations for states parties, but also provides a basis on which to promote equality for disabled people in the UK and all over the world. The communiqué underlines the importance of fostering the inclusion of the disabled in society, particularly in sports. By working with the future host nations, we hope to help realise the potential of future Games to promote human rights.
What needs to happen is for attitudes to change, for the disabled to be accepted as equal and important members of their communities. In some countries, this will take a wholesale change of belief and culture. What we can do and what the Coalition is doing, is to support projects and organisations which campaign for positive change globally. ‘Time to Change’ is a great example of the Government and the charitable sector working together. The programme is aimed at ending the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health issues. The project is funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief, but is run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
While the Paralympics shows the amazing spirit, resolve and achievement of the Paralympians, there is still a long road ahead for the advancement of the civil and human rights of people with disabilities.
* Jeremy Browne is the MP for Taunton Deane, and was previously a minister in both the Home and Foreign offices.