Disability and access to information in Lebanon
June 5, New York: The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted in 2006 and came into force in 2008. It represents the culmination of decades of efforts to improve the protection of the human rights of persons with disabilities, so that they can enjoy their human rights on an equal basis with others.
The CRPD recognises that social and state practices which exclude people with disabilities from participation in daily life must change if persons with disabilities are to enjoy the same rights as others. It also recognises that civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to information, are a vital precondition in order for persons with disabilities to achieve their rights and overcome histories of exclusion.
Persons with disabilities continue to face attitudinal and environmental barriers to participation in many areas of life. In order to challenge these barriers, persons with disabilities need to take political action. They need to make strong arguments for change – and these arguments for change need to be based on information about their situation. If persons with disabilities and the organisations that represent them are to challenge their exclusion, they need to have information about the government policies that contribute to exclusion.
While Lebanon has not yet ratified the CRPD, Lebanon has made certain commitments in international law, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Convention against Corruption, that require it to provide access to information to all its citizens, including people with disabilities.
In 2000, Lebanon adopted Law 220 on the Rights of Disabled Persons (Law 220/2000), several years before the adoption of the CRPD. The law is mainly built around a set of rights integrating citizens with disabilities into social and economic life, through employment, transport and housing quotas, and guarantees of health and educational services.
The law does not mention access to information. Its major contribution to political participation by persons with disabilities is its recognition of the National Council for Disability Affairs (the NCDA), with members elected by and from disabled persons’ organisations and persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, the NCDA frequently struggles to access information from other ministries.
While Law 220/2000 makes important commitments to the rights of persons with disabilities, many of these commitments have not been fulfilled, because individuals with disabilities and Disabled Persons’ Organisations do not have adequate access to information about their rights and services.
A draft law on access to information was submitted to the Lebanese parliament in April 2009, which has not yet been adopted, because of a political crisis in Lebanon – one of the main obstacles to achieving progress on access to information and disability rights in Lebanon.
The draft law includes no specific requirement to provide information in accessible or usable formats for persons with disabilities as proposed by the CRPD.
Two approaches to defining disability are sometimes represented as two opposing models: ‘the medical model’ and ‘the social model.’ Definitions are important because they lead to different understandings of the scope of the problem. Lebanon’s disability prevalence rate is two percent of the total population, much lower than international rates; one reason for Lebanon’s low prevalence rate is that Lebanon’s official statistics body, like many others in the region, uses medical definitions of disability.
Access to information does in many cases exist – but it is based on informal social and political networks, meaning that relatively powerless people – such as many people with disabilities – do not have easy access to information that could help bring about change.
Government disclosure of information about public finances and public policy outcomes is a key element of access to information. But the Lebanese government’s record often falls short of its international commitments. Lack of disclosure makes it difficult for persons with disabilities in Lebanon to advocate effectively for their full participation in public life. Experiences from Lebanese Disabled Persons’ Organisations demonstrate that they struggle to access government information on education, health and budgets.
The CRPD and the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (an instrument of international law adopted in 1993) both recognise public authorities’ responsibility to provide information in accessible formats and technologies and while new technologies are transforming access to information for groups with specific impairments and the money to pay for them, they are not accessible to poor people with disabilities. Other groups – such as people with learning disabilities – have no ready technological fix to overcome the particular barriers to information that they face, meaning that many persons with disabilities have no alternative but to request information through friends and relatives.
People with disabilities may need to be given – and to understand -information in specific contexts in order to achieve their rights. For example, children with disabilities, who frequently live in residential institutions and persons who are considered to be lacking in legal capacity may need to have information provided to them in a way that ensures they understand it.
While access to information usually refers to information already held by a public body, the CRPD goes further than this and makes statistical reporting on disability a human rights treaty obligation. Thus, under the CRPD, states are required to generate statistics on issues relevant to the implementation of laws on disability.
Persons with disabilities face complex barriers to achieving their rights, and the CRPD represents an important attempt to overcome those barriers. The CRPD has extended and reformulated many human rights, incorporating concrete measures from existing human rights that ensure that the convention’s principles – accessibility, non-discrimination, inclusion, and respect for dignity and evolving capacity – are put into practice.
Access to information is a vital element of freedom of expression, and a vital precondition for the achievement of other rights.
The CRPD develops existing international human rights law on access to information, setting out some of the political and administrative changes that are needed in order for persons with disabilities to be able to seek, receive and impart ideas and information, and use information to change their own situations and the society that they live in.
The Oslo Times