ACT Goes to the United Nations

Local organization invited to New York to lead rights training

Last week, Mary Kay Kennedy and Liz Koltes of St. Paul-based Advocating Change Together (ACT), along with North Dakota activists Carla Tice and Helen Bechold, joined national and international leaders at the United Nations in New York. The purpose of the trip was to help launch a new human rights manual and participate in United Nations ceremonies celebrating the newly adopted Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It’s been quite a journey for the disability rights group that started in Minneapolis 28 years ago. “When ACT was founded in 1979, the idea of equal rights for people with disabilities was still a radical idea,” said ACT co-director Kennedy. “As of last spring, its become a global standard.” In March a landmark treaty was adopted by the United Nations that aims to improve the lives of people with disabilities throughout the world.

Last January, ACT was asked to partner with the Harvard Project on Disability, Minnesota Human Rights Center, Disabled Peoples’ International and Blue Law Project to develop a manual that is intended to serve as a major resource in human rights and disability education throughout the world. The manual draws on the full body of international human rights law and policy with a strong focus on the newly adopted UN Convention. “The curriculum is fantastic,” said Kennedy. “It includes straightforward information about the Convention with lots of interactive activities. It will prove to be a great tool for bringing the content and spirit of the Convention to the minds and hearts of people all over the world.” She went on to say that people need to know about this landmark legislation in order to demand their rights and hold their governments accountable.

Kennedy was invited to be the first to pilot the new curriculum in conjunction with the December 3rd United Nations International Day of Disabled Persons. “It’s important that we roll this out at the United Nations,” said Janet Lord, lead partner in creating the manual. “And International Day of Disabled Persons is the perfect time to launch it.” The manual, hot-off-the-press in time for its UN debut, is now available for purchase in the United States. (Plans are underway for language translation to make it accessible to people worldwide.) Next year, ACT will pilot the entire training curriculum, called Human Rights. Yes! in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. “This has been a fantastic opportunity for ACT, said co-director Rick Cardenas. “Making connections between disability rights and human rights is what ACT is all about. I’m not going to New York, but I’m already making plans to take this on the road in the Midwest.”

Workshop participant Harvey Patch of New York State Self-Advocacy Association was enthusiastic about the pilot. “This UN treaty is new and people don’t know about it yet. I think there is a huge power in the idea that we Americans are using the same resource to understand the UN Convention as people will be using in Mexico, Qatar and France. Just the idea of people all over the world talking about disability as a human rights issue is very exciting to me.”

Thirty five disability rights activists participated in the Human Rights. Yes! day-long pilot on December 2nd and joined Kennedy and others for a full day of United Nations events on December 3rd.

To start the day, the group watched a ceremony where Spain’s vice-president María Teresa Fernández deposited Spain’s ratification instrument in the UN treaty room. Afterward, as Koltes shook Fernández’s hand, she wiped tears from her face, saying, “These are tears of joy and happiness. Being here to witness Spain sign the treaty and hear Spain’s vice president talk about protecting people’s rights is very emotional to me. This really means a lot to people with people with disabilities.”

After lunch in the UN staff cafeteria, the group sat in on a program in observance of the 2007 International Day of Disabled Persons. The program took place in the same room in which the treaty was negotiated. Bechold was impressed with language translation methods at the UN. “You turn a little dial, the language you speak, and everything the speaker says is translated.”

Later, sixty people attended a reception hosted by Qatar-based Shafalla Center in celebration of the new manual and its potential to educate and inform people about the treaty. U.S. mission staffer Peggy Kerry (sister of Senator John Kerry) spoke on the U.S. position on the treaty. The reception gave people the opportunity to network, share stories and celebrate the 2007 historic treaty. “Some people were surprised that we still have a lot of people in the United States living in institutions” said Bechold. I told my story and I learned about what is happening in other countries.”

Bechold’s life story includes being institutionalized at age three in North Dakota, and a clear threat of reinstitutionalization during the Red River Flood of 1996. She knows how important it is to have the power of the law behind you when advocating for rights. “There’s a lot of discrimination that goes on everywhere. I like it that people are finally putting their heads together to figure out how to stop it.” She is optimistic that the new treaty will make a difference for people with disabilities but noted that “we are all going to have to work hard to make sure it happens.”

At the reception, Kennedy remarked on the values base from which human rights action must stem. “For thousands for years, disability has been viewed by societies as a problem with the individual person. This UN treaty has the potential to radically shift perception of disability from ‘something is wrong with the person’ to ‘something is wrong with society’ if all people are not allowed to fully enjoy the right to live, work, and participate in their communities.” She commented on the treaty’s mandate for governments to work to teach all people about issues facing people with disabilities, about harmful attitudes, and about what people with disabilities can do. This public education mandate in the treaty “will help set the foundation from which real social change can happen.”

The trip made quite an impact on the travelers. “Hobnobbing with all of these high level global leaders is a bit intimidating,” said Carla Tice, “but when I see how passionate people are about disability rights, it really gives me energy to continue the work on a local level. Being part of the UN happenings is very cool, but the reality is that the real difference we make is in our own backyards.” Said Koltes, “It’s a great to feel part of a world-wide movement. One thing I learned is that our country has not even signed the treaty. I’m going to go back and urge people to call the president. The U.S should be a leader in this treaty and I’m sad that they we are not. ”

ACT’s participation at the UN level is yet another of a long list of accomplishments by this small, grassroots organization. “It’s pretty impressive,” said Kris Jacobs, Executive Director of Jobs Now Coalition. “We’ve always known that ACT was a strong local leader, and it’s fun to see them be players on the national and international scenes.” ACT was recently awarded the Working Class Hero’s award by the Jobs Now Coalition, and Jacobs said she is one of their biggest fans. “We are especially proud of ACT for their tenacity in promoting disability as a human rights issue. They have helped me and countless others change our views about what disability means. When I heard that ACT was going to the UN, I thought ‘that’s just were they are supposed to be.’”

To order a copy of Human Rights. Yes!, the new UN training manual on disability rights, contact the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Center: call 888-HREDUC8 or e-mail humanrts@umn.edu