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The human rights of persons with disabilities: extending freedom to all

Speakers: Anna Lawson, Professor Helen Meenan, Dr Nick O'Brien
Chair: Dr Jenny Kuper, Centre for the Study of Human Rights
March 2006


The human rights of rights of persons with disabilities are finally emerging from the shadows to occupy their proper space in the mainstream of international human rights law and policy. The United Nations is close to agreeing a new thematic human rights convention on human rights and disability. This should galvanise the move towards a human rights framework on disability throughout the world and especially in the developing world where 500 million out of the estimated 600 million persons with disabilities live. The European Union too has moved decisively to a rights-based model on disability and has explicitly included persons with disabilities within the embrace of a non-discrimination directive on employment. The Council of Europe has decided to adopt a ten year strategy towards equal opportunities for persons with disabilities.

When we think seriously about what it means to be committed to the rights of persons with disabilities, we are forced to confront deep questions about our subject: what kind of comparator if any is there that we can use to assess whether discrimination is in fact occurring? What does committing ourselves to the rights of persons with disabilities actually involve? Is it a matter of trying to avoid penalising them unfairly on account of their life circumstances? If so, how could this be achieved? How expensive is it to take these rights seriously, and is it a price every society is prepared - and able - to pay?

Anna Lawson is a lecturer in the Law School at the University of Leeds and a member of the University's Centre for Disability Studies. Her research interests centre around disability and law, including discrimination law and human rights. She has acted as a consultant for the UK's Disability Rights Commission and taken part in a number of European Commission disability-related projects. Her publications include A Lawson and C Gooding (eds), Disability Rights in Europe: From Theory to Practice (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2005).

Helen Meenan holds the Jean Monnet Chair at Kingston University. She originally graduated from University College Dublin, with a BCL and worked as a solicitor in Dublin. In 1993 she was awarded an LLM in European Business Law by the University of Amsterdam, which she followed with a stage at the European Law department of Buruma Maris Advocaaten (now Houthoff Buruma) in The Hague. She later became a visiting lecturer at the Law Society of Ireland and joined Kingston Law School as a Senior Lecturer in European Law in 1997. Her research interests include age discrimination, human rights, Elder Law, European Company Law and European Social Policy. She has been invited to speak and participate in a variety of events in the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Denmark. She is currently leading a multi-authored academic book on European equality law, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2006.

Dr Nick O'Brien is Director of Legal Services and Operations at the Disability Rights Commission in Manchester, where he has overall responsibility for the DRC's strategic legal work, conciliation, helpline, transfer of expertise programme and good practice initiatives. Before joining the DRC in June 2000 he was Deputy Legal Services Ombudsman for England and Wales. He has been a solicitor since 1987 and is a member of the DTI Steering Group for the planned Commission for Equality and Human Rights. His publications include, 'The GB Disability Rights Commission and strategic law enforcement: transcending the common law mind', in eds. C. Gooding and A. Lawson, Disability Rights in Europe: From Theory to Practice (Hart, 2005), and 'Something older than law itself': Sir Henry Maine, Niebuhr and 'the path not chosen', Journal of Legal History (December 2005). He is a member of the editorial board of, and frequent contributor to, The Ombudsman, the publication of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association.