Delivering on DEI: December 3 and International Day of Persons with Disabilities

By Janet E. Lord, Board Member

This blog post was originally published on Medium, you can read it here. 

Dec. 3 marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. For me this day prompts some questions (and suggests some answers) on how organizations focused on advancing human rights globally, including AI, can and ought to be thinking about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). It should include, of course, consideration of diversity as to disability, whether physical, sensory, psycho-social or intellectual, and also diversity in respect of other characteristics. Looking at DEI issues through a disability rights lens is all the more relevant given the current work underway within AI on disability rights.

It stands to reason that DEI work within a human rights organization ought to address and contextualize — consistent with the international human rights framework — the diversity and diverse experiences of activists, paid and unpaid, and the beneficiaries of that activism. This presupposes, that DEI work is directed toward internal (policies, workforce development, working climate) and external dimensions of an organization, including the implementation of human rights work.

Committing to diversity from a human rights perspective is about including and amplifying the voices of people, especially under-represented and historically marginalized groups. The human rights framework has developed in large measure in response to the need for greater specificity in respecting, protecting and fulfilling the specific needs of at-risk populations. Instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) add texture and content to the understanding of diversity as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The CRPD recognizes the impact of multiple and aggravated discrimination when disability status is combined with: race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic, indigenous or social origin, property, birth, age or other status. This formulation can help focus attention on diversity as it ought to be understood by an organization whose mission aligns with human rights law. It includes, of course, attracting, hiring, retaining and advancing a diverse group of human rights staff and developing a diverse membership base in the case of AI. Likewise, a human rights analysis should prompt questions such as is there diversity reflected in the individual cases around which campaigns are made? In refugee work, knowing that characterizations of vulnerable masses is not compelling, but rather numbing, are individual narratives reflecting the diversity of affected populations? Are cases concerning violence against women looking broadly at discrimination, as with, for instance, the implications of dual risk factors of gender and disability discrimination? Or violations in cases arising from the failure to provide reasonable accommodation to a prisoner with a disability?

A commitment to equity within a human rights framework entails working actively to challenge and respond to bias, harassment and discrimination. It also entails proactively advancing, from an institutional perspective, policies and practices of equal opportunity for all persons that do not discriminate and advancing inclusive leadership. Human rights law has evolved to encompass elements directed at remedying past discrimination (e.g., positive measures in both the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; accessibility in the CRPD).

Drawing from disability rights principles, a commitment to equity requires positive steps to ensure that institutions are accessible to all and facilitative of diverse voices. Are we drawing on the richness of AI’s human rights education and training resources to raise awareness among staff and members about oppression in all of its dimensions? When addressing death penalty cases, how are we characterizing the vulnerabilities of the individuals whose cases we are raising? Are we at the same time avoiding the kind of stereotyping that is so often associated with raising concerns about the treatment of individuals who, for instance, have mental health issues or intellectual disabilities?

Advancing inclusion entails a commitment to taking deliberate efforts to ensure that human rights organizations and their work offer climates where differences are welcomed, where different perspectives are respectfully heard and where staff and members feel a sense of belonging and inclusion. How are we, as human rights activists, holding ourselves to account for adherence to human rights principles in how we do our work? In building a critical mass of diverse human rights activists and creating a vibrant climate of inclusiveness, we can more effectively leverage the resources of diversity to advance our collective human rights cause and the global AI movement.

Disability rights principles can be put to good use when thinking through how a human rights organization like AI ought to advance a DEI initiative. Drawing from the CRPD, these principles include respect for inherent dignity, non-discrimination; full and effective participation and inclusion in society; respect for difference and human diversity; equality of opportunity; accessibility; and equality between men and women, among others.

The language of human rights — which is evolving as the rich concepts of the CRPD clearly illustrate — provides a basis for thinking about and advancing DEI. Deep DEI accountability ought to be a priority for human rights organizations and human rights principles ought to animate DEI strategies. The rights of persons with disabilities and the principles that animate the CRPD, all of which we celebrate today, ought to be a part of that important calculus in accounting for DEI within the global human rights movement.