NEADS Conference 2004 - Right On!


Marcia Rioux

Marcia Rioux Photo


Professor Marcia Rioux’s research includes health and human rights, universal education, international monitoring of disability rights, the impact of globalization on welfare policy, literacy policy, disability policy, and social inclusion. Dr. Rioux has lectured throughout the Americas, Europe and India. She has been an advisor to federal and provincial commissions, parliamentary committees, international NGO's and United Nations agencies. Her PhD is in Jurisprudence and Social Policy from Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California, Berkeley. At York University she is the Chair of the School of Health Policy and Management, Graduate Director of the MA (Critical Disability Studies) and Director of the York Centre of Health Studies.




Synopsis: Convening a Convention: The groundwork for entrenching access to rights internationally

While protected by the two major United Nations Conventions, people with disabilities have not had the special attention that Conventions on women, children and indigenous people have provided. Now, a Convention on the Rights and Dignity of People with Disabilities is being developed there. This story of people with disabilities being heard at the United Nations will be laid out including the important interplay of advocacy and law to improve the lives of people with disabilities.


A new human rights paradigm has emerged in relation to disabilities, said Marcia Rioux, Graduate Director, MA (Critical Disability Studies), York University. Human rights principles include equality, self-determination and autonomy, inclusion, interdependence and solidarity, dignity, justice, and non-discrimination. Many people with disabilities in Canada were not given an appropriate education and continue to be excluded from schools. Separate is always unequal.

Rioux provided an overview of the changes that have occurred during the past 40 years. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for all people was followed up by a number of national opportunities that began to redefine disabilities away from the charity aspect and toward an understanding of the structural implications. The International Year of Disabled Persons was decreed in 1991. In 1993, the Standard Rules were adopted; and in 1997, the World Plan of Action for Disability underwent a review that forced governments around the world to evaluate what they had been doing with regard to people with disabilities in their respective countries.

In 1999, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region organized an interregional seminar and symposium on International Norms and Standards in Relation to Disability. Also, an Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities was held. Since 1948, momentum has been building to see disability as a human rights issue—an issue of social justice and oppression.

From 2000 to 2004, a whole series of events involving the UN High Commission on Rights suddenly shifted the balance toward a human rights paradigm and away from the medical model. The connection across countries is very strong, and a fundamental shift has occurred in the way that people see themselves in their societies.

Rioux called on participants to step forward to support the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. She quoted Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner: “Disabled persons frequently live in deplorable conditions, owing to the presence of physical and social barriers, which prevent their integration and full participation in the community. Millions of children and adults worldwide are segregated and deprived of their rights and are, in effect, living on the margins. This is unacceptable.”

Having rights as goals means that services, supports, programs, and funding allocations are not ends, but are instead means to social and economic integration and to legal and social rights. The changed focus also means changing laws, changing admission requirements, and changing scholarship procedures. Rioux’s impassioned call was this: “It is a revolution, and it’s your revolution!”

Rioux referred to the UN Standard Rules 1994, saying that the principle of equal rights implies that the needs of every individual are of equal importance, that those needs must be made the basis for planning societies, and that all resources must be employed so as to ensure every individual an equal opportunity for participation. Furthermore, nation states have a responsibility to create the legal bases for measures that will achieve full participation and equality of persons with disabilities. States must ensure the participation of organizations of persons with disabilities in the development of national legislation and ongoing evaluation.

Rioux said that, to exercise rights in society, an individual must be educated. A sustainable human rights framework recognizes that disability is a result of social, legal, and economic status; that a broad set of factors contributes to exclusion and the loss of human rights; that respect for diversity contributes to well-being; that people must be supported to exercise their rights; and that people need a sense of fairness in their communities and societies.

Rioux completed her presentation with a quote from Albie Sachs from Protecting Human Rights in South Africa (1990): “No one gives us rights. We win them in struggle. They exist in our hearts before they exist on paper. Yet intellectual struggle is one of the most important areas of the battle of rights. It is through concepts that we link our dreams to the acts of daily life.”