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Rights of the disabled are not an option

It is erroneous to divide people based on whether they have made economic contributions. It is equally wrong to conceive persons with disabilities as non-productive, and even more wrong to see them as a group asking only for favours or welfare.

If a society is to treasure freedom and openness, all its members should be respected as equals. Participation and resource distribution should be based on equality and justice, not status and favouritism.

It is true that the law sometimes defines a person's "worth" in terms of productivity or capacity. For example, in employment compensation, the person's working or earning capacity may be assessed for the purpose of compensation.

The laws may not be intended as such, but these assessments can cause social exclusion. 

A sociologist may tell you that assuming a “sick role” could mean falling into a category that is not always socially favourable. In it, a person may easily be seen as a faulty person, incomplete, undesirable or problematic.

Such social exclusion may even be justified by political and legal theory.

The social contract theory of the late US political philosopher John Rawls assumes a homogeneous citizenry. This paradigm may lead one to ask: why should productive people contract unproductive people? One may even argue that compromised productivity cannot offset the needs and assistance disabled people may require.

Such arguments are not uncommon, even in today's world. Rawls' theory is criticised as rejecting disability.

However, Professor Martha Nussbaum, philosopher in law and ethics at the University of Chicago, has a new perspective. She sees justice as a demand to pursue the basic threshold of 10 "central human capabilities" that are fundamental and universal in order to live a truly human existence. Humanity is heterogeneous and diversified. Both non-disabled and disabled people are equally worthy.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was another step forward in 2008. A comprehensive disability human rights framework is now in place in the form of international law. It recognises persons with disabilities as fully participating, rights-bearing members of society. It requires signatory states to make efforts to not only eliminate disability discrimination, but to take positive steps to ensure full and equal enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities.

To quote Professor Michael Stein of Harvard Law School, who helped draft the convention, disability is now repositioned "as a universal human variation rather than an aberration".

Humanity is precious, over and above its economic contributions. Hong Kong should learn to see this worth in order to advance with the world.

An inclusive playground in Coquitlam, Vancouver, BC, Canada

*An edited version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post on 4 November 2014.

Further Readings:
1. Martha C. Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Harvard University Press 2007)

2. Michael A. Stein, "Disability Human Rights" California Law Review Vol 95 (2007) 75 (pre-convention work but still relevant)