Disability is a crosscutting issue and hence, its weight falls on every segment of the society: families, relatives, friends, educators, health workers and the nation as a whole. People with disabilities come from all walks of life and with the rising trend of deformed births, accidents and various diseases, the number of people living with disabilities is certainly increasing in Bhutan. In fact, even those who are not living with disability today are certainly heading towards it if they live long enough. This was the key message we were trying to convey to the Members of Parliament when I and my colleagues from the Disabled Persons’ Association of Bhutan (DPAB) were invited by the Sub-committee on Women and Children on Monday, 14th September 2015 to share the concerns and needs of persons with disabilities in Bhutan. However, the reaction from the Committee and the government was not so encouraging. It’s really sad to know that the government still does not seem to be ready to align its commitment and efforts towards empowering persons with disabilities in the country through legal frameworks.
Bhutan has been signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) since September 2010 and the Royal Government is definitely obliged to ratify the Convention sooner or later. The Convention guarantees equal rights and dignity for persons with disabilities at all aspects of social, economic, political and public life and hence, it is a key human rights instrument that can contribute towards creating an inclusive society for all where people with disabilities enjoy full rights, respect and dignity they are entitled for. So during our presentations to the Sub-committee, we requested the government if the Convention be ratified in the due course of time so that the relevant provisions of the Convention could be incorporated into the existing national laws. But what followed our presentation was quite disheartening. In response to our proposal, we were read out a paragraph from the letter written by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Sub-committee which expressed the concern of the government over the ratification of the UNCRPD at the moment. The government is concerned that Bhutan may not be able to comply with all the requirements of the Convention considering the prevailing constraints of resources in the country. The letter had indicated that the Royal Government of Bhutan is still not ready to accept international commitments on the ground that the right time has not yet arrived.
Now my question is, when will the right time come, if not now? Many people believe that whatever the government is doing for persons with disabilities today is enough and that disability is not yet a national concern. But the realities on the ground are different. We don’t have accessible public infrastructures, disabled-friendly services and special legal protections if required. There is no specific mention of the rights of persons with disabilities in our acts and national policies that give us extra voice to raise our concerns and needs. The government’s current policy of equal opportunities for all is also not fair at times because all persons with disabilities do not possess the same talents and capabilities and as such, they won’t be able to compete with their non-disabled counterparts in many areas. There is certainly a need to reconsider some of the existing policies and introduce systems in place to empower people with disabilities so that they can meaningfully participate in the mainstream society. The mindset of many Bhutanese people has also remained the same over the years despite our consistent efforts to create public awareness on disability issues in the country. For instance, DPAB had trained eight visually impaired people as SPA Therapists in an effort to help them live an independent life upon the completion of the training but none of the resorts the Association approached agreed to employ them although they were certified SPA Therapists. The Management of the resorts was worried that they might land up helping the visually impaired therapist instead. As a result, they had to initiate their own business with support from the Association. This is a very sad reality in Bhutan today. The Civil Service has been the only sector that has been employing persons with disabilities as of now and that too on the basis of equal opportunities for all. So, those who have failed to compete with their non-disabled counterparts are still left at the mercy of their families, relatives and friends.
Considering all those challenges faced by the disability community today, it is felt imperative to have legal instruments in place that can guarantee our voices and provide us with right platforms for sharing our concerns and needs. By demanding the ratification of UNCRPD, we are not asking for the legislation of Disability Act right away. We absolutely agree with the parliament that the implementation of any act will be a challenge but what we are asking the government today is to at least start processing for the ratification of the Convention so that it can be harmonized with our national laws over the time. It’s not true that by ratifying the Convention, the government has to comply with all its provisions. I feel that ratification simply approves the harmonization of relevant clauses from the Convention with our existing national acts and policies. Of course, a significant portion of the Convention is already being in place in Bhutan and if the government ratifies it, we don’t have much to do to achieve the rest. We requested the Sub-committee to reconsider the possibility of processing for the ratification of the Convention once again and they have promised to continue to work with us on the matter. We don’t even have a disability policy as of today. We have been told that GNHC is spearheading the drafting of the disability policy but we have never been involved in any discussion so far, and we are wondering what kind of policy is being drafted without involving us. We have a strong slogan “Nothing about us without us” and we believe that our needs and concerns cannot be assumed. We have been told that the Sub-committee had directed GNHC to work with Disabled Persons’ Organizations (DPOs) while drafting the policy but even they have not received any update till date on the progress of the policy. I hope GNHC is also not waiting for the right time to work on the policy.
I believe that if we keep on waiting for the right time, Bhutan can never move forward with the rest of the world. I think “waiting for the right time” is becoming a mental disease in Bhutan. Whenever we propose to initiate something new, we have the tendency to think that the right time has not come. When His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo introduced democracy in 2008, many people refused to accept it saying Bhutan was not ready for the change. But when His Majesty the King went ahead with his noble decision, things moved on very well. If we had waited for the right time to have democracy in the country, we would have remained the same even today. So, this was my main argument during our discussion with the Members of Parliament last week. But the Sub-committee members were very considerate about our concerns and they have agreed to call us whenever they have discussions on the issue. I keep my fingers crossed that with the passage of time, things will get better and the government would make right decisions for the wellbeing of all Bhutanese living with disabilities.