In conversation: Miro Griffiths on the rights of disabled people

Earlier today, educator and former United Kingdom government adviser Miro Griffiths, set out some of the key issues of concern to disability rights activists in a Facebook text conversation.

Council of Europe: Welcome Miro … and all those following this conversation. Let’s get the ball rolling

Would you agree that the single biggest challenge facing disabled rights activists is disrupting the low expectations model that able-bodied people apply to disabled people?

Miro Griffiths This is a very interesting question; of course we want to ensure that we challenge the dominant cultural and political narrative associated with disability being a deficit, a tragedy or a result of somebody’s impairment or health condition. However, we want to think about how best to do this and this requires an overall strategy that fights back against economic structures, political discourse and the violation of disabled people’s rights in society. Effectively, we want to shift the debate from a medical one to human rights perspective.

Council of Europe How can this be achieved?

Miro Griffiths Firstly, we have to recognise and acknowledge that we are driven to push for ever greater profits, so the evidence demonstrates that disabled people’s rights are supported only in so far as they contribute to the social and economic objectives outlined by the member states. We can rely on our allies positioned in a different social structures associated with everyday living, as well as the strategies and toolkits provided by the Council of Europe, UN, OSCE etc. but over relying on strategies and top-down approaches will not provide the result we want.

The question is how do we ensure emancipatory practices exist at the grassroot level, so disabled people institutionalised or marginalised have access and a voice within the debates we are having? Also, we need to resource and fund user led organisations to carry on the narrative espoused by the independent living movement and disabled people’s movement; we need to establish user led media platforms, controlled by disabled people for disabled people, and also request further assistance when our member states continue to enact discrimination, violation of rights and, indeed, violence towards disabled people.

Liri Kopaci-Di Michele Miro Griffiths good point about the importance of reaching out to grassroot level. The new @CoE strategy puts Persons with Disabilities at the core of all proposed work and activities. And most important thé CoE will facilitate contacts provide tools ensure good practices are circulated but the strategy implementation is driven by the national and local authorities in cooperation with persons with disabilities and NGOs working with and for persons with disabilities.

Council of Europe Miro Griffiths What advice do you have for activists in CoE member states who are trying to get political traction for the rights of disabled people, in an era in which social justice is dismissed increasingly as a “snowflake liberal” pity-party?

Miro Griffiths Initially, I would say recognise that the state is deliberately trying to attempt to ensure we are all placed in precarious situations whereby we cannot have a voice or challenge the dominant political and cultural hegemony. When we become frustrated that our so-called allies will not support us, I think we should recognise that this is no great surprise because our society has increasingly become individualised where we seek to protect our own position over that of our community – although, guessing that this is not the case for marginalised cohorts who are starting to fight back.

I am always reminded by some of the philosophers associated with government structure who strive to remind us that government/governors only hold their position on the basis of opinion and the power always remains with the people. The state is always in fear the people because, effectively, through mobilised action, protest, resistance and United social movements, states can be brought to account.

So, with that in mind, we should see opportunities to utilise human rights legislation, strategy guides from the council, and our peers at the grassroot level across the globe in order to position our argument, which is twofold: why is there a problem now and what is our offered solution? But it is vital that we are clear whether we want to resist the current practice and attempt to provide advancements under the current regime/systems/ideas or whether we want complete overhaul…

Liri Kopaci-Di Michele Council of Europe social justice and rights of persons w/disabilities are core human rights. Standing up to discrimination, exclusion, violence, stigma is not sel-pity but doing what is right.

Council of Europe Miro .. following up on points made by Liri Kopaci-Di Michele .. How would you strengthen the Council of Europe’s new Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2017-2023.

Miro Griffiths I remember reading it when it first came out and all the proposed risks associated with the expected impacts are actually contemporary examples of disabled people’s experiences. I welcome any opportunity to establish an action plan associated with disability, as it continues the dialogue of Disability and Human Rights; nevertheless, it would have been useful for the strategy to reflect on its achievements and barriers of the last action plan and how they will be addressed in the current one – I feel that this is lacking.

Also, when reading an action plan we have to consider who has ownership of it; if I was to present the arguments outlined in the action plan to a diverse range of disabled people, from various backgrounds and geographical locations, how would they utilise the strategy? Would they feel that they have ownership of its direction, purpose?

I welcome all the crosscutting themes, which have been at the forefront of Disability Policy for many years, however I feel that there needs to be additional work associated with the “working methods” because this is where the strategy will be judged. I’m not criticising the strategy, as I welcome any attempt at any level to route disability and human rights perspective but what comes from a strategy when it is placed alongside extensive institutionalisation programs, state members violations towards disabled people, the continuation of disabled people’s life chances being one of poverty and marginalisation?

I want to see how a strategy could ensure that every member state feels as if their actions will be questioned, they will need to face scrutiny and accountability. A perfect example of this is how the strategy criticises institutional utilisation disabled people across Europe.

Where the strong narrative to move away from, to provide alternatives associated with personalised support and assistance? Let’s be very clear, we are dismantling equality legislation across all marginalised groups so we are expecting to see further institutionalisation, violence and disabled people’s rights being removed – so what can this strategy, and others, categorically solve to prevent this? Because that is the question that disabled people and our allies will be asking…

Liri Kopaci-Di Michele Miro – thanks for this constructive critical insight of the CoE strategy – we have tried to address the issue of monitoring implementation – there is an analysis of the risks and mitigating action.

There will be regular reporting on its implementation and we also count on the monitoring of the UNCRPD (all 5 priority areas are anchored in the UNCEPD). Case-law of the ECHR is also v.important. And we count on engaging with persons with disabilities and specialized NGOs to ensure we bring their concerns into the focus of our work when we roll out the activities for its implementation of Strategy. Counting on your support!

Council of Europe From a campaign point of view, is it a strategic weakness of the disability rights movement that it has so many concerns to put forward rather than a single over-arching demand?

Miro Griffiths I do not think it is a concern, rather a reflection of the advancements made to celebrate our identity as human beings as well as politicise the construct of disability and disablement. The frustration that we have many agenda items that are not being met or acted on with sufficient detail/timescale is a consequence of those in power refusing to build societal structures from a social justice platform.

Whilst one group may focus on inclusive education and another on the sexual and reproductive rights of disabled people does not mean one should take precedence over another. Both are interlinked and equally important; this is probably where I shift my views from traditional materialist thinkers who want to look at state structures predominantly. Identity issues, access to education, access to employment, access to personalised support, access to community, these are all interlinked – that is why we have seen the significance of intersectional and simultaneous discrimination issues. So, it is not a weakness, but what it does require is a united front whereby we support one another on each other’s agendas and recognise how they crossover and interlink.

I’m not saying that there is a refusal to work together, rather this then boils down to resources and time. When I talk about human rights and disability, I do not go into a discussion thinking today I will only prioritise hate crime, bioethics, institutionalisation – I’m going into a discussion thinking how do we reach a point whereby disabled people feel and are perceived as valued human beings.

Miro Griffiths Just to provide an example…

Council of Europe: What do you say to those able-bodied people who fear that the “disability rights agenda,” particularly the demand for independent living, is essentially a demand for more resources and that in the zero-sum paradigm of government spending, this will raise taxes and impose financial costs on businesses?

Miro Griffiths: In the UK we have the equalities and human rights commission, who seek to address inequality issues across a range of agendas and priorities… Irrespective of what our opinion is of the work, their budget has been cut from over £60 million to approximately £15 million.

They will have to now prioritise their activities and focus on particular groups… This is not a weakness because their remit is to address various protected characteristics, rather it is a demonstration of how the state values the significance and importance of human rights…

The idea that independent living is too costly is a naive, short-term focus response. Effectively when people use the narrative that you have just provided an example, what they are effectively saying is that disabled people cost too much to the productivity of society.

Part of the demands of the Disabled People’s movement is to challenge the value and basis of capitalism, by doing this we can look to build a society whereby we provide people with the right level of support to be valued members of their community, irrespective of whether they work or not…

Similarly, the issue of money is ridiculous. We do not have to go into it now but it is a simple case of prioritising budgets and departments… We can find money for nuclear weapons.

Liri Kopaci-Di Michele Miro Griffiths – I agree on concerns regarding cuts in resources, institutions and mechanisms that deal with issues related to discrimination – disability is one , gender equality another – today’s report on implementation of GE Strategy points out concerns in this respect.

Council of Europe Last week at a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly hearing, MPs discussed the issue of germline editing. Advances in genetic science and medicine (pronuclear transfer technology and maternal spindle transfer) have enabled some parents to avoid passing on their genetic diseases to children. This provoked a passionate discussion on bioethics and the fear of “designer babies.” How would you like to see law-makers respond to this debate?

Podcast: Bioethics and Europe’s brave new world of “designer” babies

Firstly we should remember that medical advancements seem to be prioritised over the ethical and human rights debates associated with it. I listened to your interview with the parent representative and with all due respect to the individual – who I do not know – I thought his comments were naive.

There is this assumption that we have complete choice over actions, we are informed and rationalise all our decisions. This is simply not the case, read literature on hegemony or indoctrination to counter it.

Now, the idea of genetic modification on the basis of impairment is effectively a reinforcement of eugenic principles. We need to be very clear on what it is, I am not that interested in individual accounts as to whether somebody would want to screen out certain impairments, modify genetics associated with impairment groups, but I am interested in framing it as part of the historical and contemporary discourse associated with eugenics.

We see many narratives associated with celebrating the screening of Down syndrome, spina bifida, neuromuscular conditions, which effectively is a message to say we don’t want individuals with such conditions to exist because medical professionals and individuals with no direct experience of the politicisation of disability have come to the conclusion that impairment equates to suffering and tragedy. What message does that send out to individuals who are already existing within society, your life is a fate worse than death?

We also see at the other end with the dominant messages associated with assisted suicide and euthanasia.

So from beginning to end, there is a question being placed as to whether disabled people should actually exist within society. This is not about choice or autonomy, it is about a priority. It is to ensure that people with impairments and health conditions do not exist; and my frustration and anger associated with this topic is born from the reality that we are having this debate before we have got to the position where disabled people have choice and control and support to part of their communities.

Council of Europe Time is running short Miro Griffiths so let me put to you a last question : Isolation, marginalisation and exclusion – this is the reality of the lives of too many disabled people, as revealed in policy and campaign reports. What do we have to do to move beyond this situation?

Miro Griffiths Regarding your last question, my answer may seem brief or missing a plethora of potential routes but those reading this debate are probably already sympathetic to the demands from disabled people and their organisations.

I would like to ask when we talk to people about our work, our values, our position on human rights, I want us to know do the people we talk to side with the oppressed or the oppressors because there is no middle ground, there never is. We need to consider what actions we have taken and whether they have benefited those who face marginalisation or those who seek to ensure it remains…

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