Author Archive for Timothy Wyman-McCarthy

Disability Pride Month

By Tim Wyman-McCarthy, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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The Americans with Disabilities Act was became law in the United States in 1990.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was became law in the United States in 1990.

At least as far as UN Conventions are concerned, disability rights are the new kid on the block. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006 and coming into force in May 2008, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has now been ratified by 159 States. Noticeably absent from this group, however, is the United States. While the US is infamous for its reticence to sign international agreements—or to play nicely in the international-legal sandbox—this omission is nonetheless surprising, given the long and rich history of disability activism in the country. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—one of the most advanced, and earliest, pieces of legislation protecting the rights of persons with disabilities—is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

And disability rights issues continue to receive public attention in the country. In honour of the ADA’s 25th Anniversary, this July has been named Disability Pride Month, and on July 12th New York will host the first ever Annual Disability Pride Parade. The parade aims to “instill or reinforce Pride among all members of the disability community; to change the public perception of people with disabilities; and to tear down the silos that segment our community.” Parading down Broadway in the name of disability is not an insignificant achievement considering that many persons with disabilities around the world are hidden away in institutions, shackled in their own homes, or denied the opportunity to participate in political or public life. Such visibility, then, is a critical success, and reflects the gains made by the movement in recent years.

So while there is much to celebrate, there is also much to reflect on and consider for the future. This past June I attended the Conference of State Parties to the CRPD at the UN, where I had the opportunity to think about the status of disability rights globally. Overwhelmingly, conversations looked at how to close the implementation gap to make the provisions of the CRPD a reality for as many individuals around the world as possible. States, it was noted, are often surprisingly open to conversations about disability, and tend not to deny the existence of persons with disabilities within their borders (this contrasts markedly with the case of indigenous rights, as many States continue to deny the existence of indigenous peoples in their territory). As such, many of the central events of the Conference dealt with issues of implementation, including mainstreaming disability rights throughout the UN system, data collection, and various intersectionalities (the abuse of women with disabilities, access to education for children with disabilities).

There are also a host of issues which remain to be adequately addressed, such as persons with disabilities in humanitarian crises and situations of risk (including the Central African Republic and Nepal); the disproportionate attention given to persons with physical disabilities at the cost of attention to those with psychosocial, cognitive, or intellectual disabilities; the shackling of persons with disabilities; and the work that still has to be done to ensure States transition from the use of institutions to community-based services. And if disability issues and persons with disabilities themselves were highly visible at the UN in June and across the United States in July, one does not need to look too far to see that there is still much to be done in this country, not least on the notoriously inaccessibly subway system in New York itself (of the 466 stations only about 90 are accessible). Thus the push for accessible taxis and subways is vital for New York, a city with an estimated 800,000 individuals with disabilities, comprising 10% of the population (though only 3.4% of those employed have disabilities—another key area for improvement). And there are more hidden, less visible abuses against persons with disabilities here in the United States: a Human Rights Watch report released this past May concluded that across the country “staff working in jails and prisons have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force on prisoners with mental disabilities such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”

ada_01It is a given that social and rights movements need more than UN Conventions and the relatively toothless force of international human rights law to effect change—but this does not negate the role that documents like the CRPD can play as a benchmark against which to measure conditions of persons with disabilities globally. In this capacity, it matters that the most powerful countries endorse them, and it remains embarrassing that the United States, whose own ADA is often considered the model for the CRPD, has failed thus far to do so. As one commentator at a recent event at the UN called “The ADA: Twenty-Five Years of Changing America and Inspiring the World” noted, the United States Senate’s decision not to ratify the CRPD has nothing to do with the treaty itself, given how closely it aligns with the already in-place ADA, and has everything to do with taking a shot at the UN system—at the price of persons with disabilities globally. Ratification would allow the United States to engage with, hold accountable, and assist other countries as they go about implementing the Convention. As New York and the United States celebrates disability pride and the movement devoted to protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, it should be remembered how much work is yet to be done both in this country and abroad.

Tim Wyman-McCarthy is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research interests include indigenous rights in settler colonial settings, human rights discourse, and disability rights.

Human Rights Career Panel

By Tim Wyman-McCarthy, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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As students across Columbia—both graduate and undergraduate—settle into the Spring term a series of questions echo around campus: What are your plans for the summer? Have you begun your dissertation? And, most dreaded of all: what’s next? It is this last question, of what comes after graduation, that seems to produce the most anxiety. This is especially true for students interested in fields characterized by less-than-clear paths to employment or uncertain job prospects. One such example is human rights, and so it was of great benefit to many that on February 26th the Institute for the Study of Human Rights held a career panel about what it means to pursue human rights as a profession. The event was comprised of a panel discussion with five human rights professionals followed by an open question and answer session.

Sheree Bennet and Zeke Johnson responding to questions at the Human Rights Career Panel.

Sheree Bennet and Zeke Johnson responding to questions at the Human Rights Career Panel.

The speakers were qualified, interesting, and informative. The panel consisted of: Antonio Cisneros de Alencar, Program Coordinator for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Guatemala; Rose Anderson, a Program Associate for Protection Services at Scholars at Risk and an HRSMA alumnus; Sheree Bennet, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale who is working for the International Rescue Committee; Zeke Johnson, the Managing Director of Amnesty International USA’s Individuals at Risk Program; and Amanda Klasing, a researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.

To this diverse group were put questions about the content of their work, the specific challenges it poses, their career paths, the skills and personal qualities it requires, and what they look for if hiring for their own position. We heard fascinating accounts of the complexity involved in the OHCHR’s work on the rights of indigenous peoples in Guatemala; how research and practice come together in the IRC project in Haiti; and what is involved in identifying and protecting scholars at risk. While it would have been useful to get a sense of a ‘day-in-the-life’ of each of these individuals, the accounts they provided of their work and that of their respective organizations did communicate the variety of experiences, directions, geographical locations, forms of advocacy and research, and professional positions available through a career in human rights.

Specific advice was also offered for those thinking about pursuing further education. When asked about the role of research in human rights practice and the value of embarking on further graduate work, Bennet cautioned that “being a great student is not a good enough reason to do a Ph.D.” It is important to remember, especially for current students, that the Ph.D. is about contributing to a body of knowledge and requires a “tenacity that is hard to imagine”. Similarly, Klasing spoke to the benefits and drawbacks of the MA and JD. While the JD gets the attention of those at the table—perhaps more so than the anthropologist in the room—the MA can provide one with the critical tools to approach human rights work with sensitivity and intellectual rigour. Ultimately, both pointed to the fact that certain kinds of graduate-level education are not for everyone, though most kinds can be valuable in some way to a career in human rights. At the end of the day, what is important is that you find the kind of contribution that is most closely aligned with your goals and interests. Along these lines Mr. Alencar insisted that students follow their passions and avoid framing themselves by what’s most demanded by the market, for at the end of the day human rights is about believing in a cause and working on something that drives you. Additionally, he pointed out that you can work on human rights issues from many different types of organizations, and that, in fact, limiting your career path to only one sector is often less effective than gaining experience by going from one sector to another.

The panel was mostly in agreement on the kinds of skills, experiences, and qualities necessary for many of their positions or the human rights profession in general: languages (at least 2, if interested in international work), applied research, writing and communication skills (distilling ideas in a way that resonates), being a team player, showing that one is serious and respectful but also friendly, strategic thinking (seeing all the moving parts of a process and knowing how to synthesize them), quick thinking, methodological training, problem solving and sound judgment, world experience (living abroad, experience with other cultures), and drive, to name the most frequently mentioned. How does one gain such skills and experience? This was less fully addressed. The panel did suggest the importance of networking, internships, putting the word out that you’re looking for a certain kind of work, having mentors (informal and formal), error-free applications, and to “be a star intern!”

While it is useful to be reminded of the value of these skills and the strategies for showcasing them, looking back it is clear that the list of skills, experiences, and qualities the panel assembled is not unique to the human rights field. Even if the embodiment of all these qualifications does make someone an exceptional candidate, these skills and experiences fall in line with similar lists that one could imagine for virtually every profession. So even as these individuals all offered unique perspectives and valuable advice, I felt that an audience feeling ever more pressured by an ever-increasingly corporatized and bureaucratized human rights field would be better served by a more creative or reflective approach to ‘careers in human rights’. What I would like to hear, then, from those in the thick of the profession is what (academic, intellectual, social, cultural, etc.) backgrounds and skills they feel are underrepresented in their field? What kinds of individuals have surprised them by their contribution to their shared work? When have unexpected convergences of perspectives, individuals, or groups lead to fruitful collaborations? When have existing structures proved inadequate to the tasks of effecting change and how might these moments of failure point to potential spaces for innovation? What are the mechanisms by which a human rights perspective might be creatively introduced to all sorts of spaces—governmental, educational, corporate, personal, recreational? What are the limits or weaknesses of their organizations?

These broader conversations about creative solutions to pressing problems would enhance the value of human rights education and further complement a full CV.

Tim Wyman-McCarthy is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research focuses on indigenous rights in settler colonial settings, human rights discourse, and disability rights.