Translation: Nothing about us without us

ACT promotes self-advocacy conference

From Minnesota to Saudi Arabia, Advocating Change Together (ACT) is spreading the word about self-advocacy and involving people with developmental disabilities. The St. Paul-based organization’s latest stop in the global disability rights movement was Riyahd, Saudi Arabia as ACT member Kelly Lee and Co-Director Mary Kay Kennedy were among 230 international speakers presenting at the 3rd Annual Disability Conference. ACT was invited to co-facilitate a half-day session on the United Nations Convention the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The presentation focused on how to involve self-advocates in efforts to promote human rights. The conference was organized by the Sultan Charity Foundation and the Prince Salman Center for Disability.

The session on CRPD was attended by Saudi direct support workers, teachers, physical therapists and others who work directly with people with disabilities.

The invitation to ACT stemmed from its prior work on making the CRPD accessible to people with developmental disabilities. ACT has not only authored a handbook on the convention, but also led several trainings on CWPD for self-advocates. “Valerie Karr is a woman we met through her work on CRPD at the United Nations,” said Kennedy. “She was actually the person invited to present in Saudi. She made the request for ACT to accompany her. We made a good team—Val provided facts, figures and direct UN experiences balanced with ACT’s interactive approach.”

Cultural difference in Saudi Arabia presented some challenges to ACT participatory style. “The biggest challenge I found with this group,” said Kennedy, “is that we could not see the faces of the women. Most wore a full abya so we could only read expression through their eyes. The session was also microphoned for language interpretation so we were pretty much tied to our microphones and were not able to move around much for group exercises. The microphones (for language interpreting) amplified voices and it was difficult to identity who was speaking because of the abyas. The challenges with language coupled with restricted interaction between men and women made for a very interesting session.”

“The group was slow to warm-up, but by the second half of the session the 40 participants were actively engaged and participating,” said Kennedy. A Saudi woman was asked to read a statement about disability rights. She was hesitant to participate but agreed to give it a try. She worked with the language interpreter to understand the specific right. She then read the right and went on to give her opinions and thoughts about what it meant. Following her example, three other Saudi women read a human right statement and talked about what it meant to them. All of this was being translated from Arabic to English. “This is what I will remember about the session,” said Karr. “It was so powerful to see these women taking a leadership role during the session and working to understand what this new Convention means.”

The main question from the participants had to do with the gap between what the UN treaty says and practical application. Saudi Arabia ratified the CRPD last June along with its Optional Protocol. (The protocol allows for external monitoring by the United Nations.) Like people from many other countries, the Saudi people point out that the proof with be in action, not words.

The trip left a powerful impression on the ACT presenters. “It’s really something,” said Lee. “I never thought I would be going to Saudi Arabia. I never thought I would meet so many people from all around the world. The highlight, according to Lee, was the people. “That’s the best part—meeting people. They were all really nice to me. I learned a lot from them—and they learned a lot from me, too.”