Disability regulation under fire

Taking away voting rights from the disabled goes against a UN convention that has itself attracted criticism

As Denmark prepares to implement a UN disability rights convention, advocates here are calling for a change to a law that unintentionally excludes some disabled people from voting. 

According to a report released last month by the Danish Institute of Human Rights (IMR), in 2011 alone nearly 200 Danes, the majority disabled and mentally ill, but also some who were compulsive gamblers, lost their right to vote because they were found to be unable to make certain decisions on their own. Under the terms of the 1997 guardianship law, such people must have their guardian handle personal matters such as signing official documents and managing their finances.

In the report, the IMR concludes that the guardianship law violates the European Convention of Human Rights and the UN disability convention, two agreements that Denmark has pledged to abide by.

The issues surrounding the capacity of the disabled to vote is just one of a number of issues looked at in the IMR report, but making any progress, they say, is blocked by a slow-moving UN process as Denmark seeks to implement the organisation's disability rights convention.

Last August Denmark sent its first report to UN disability rights committee CRPD, but due to an unexpectedly large number of countries submitting reports, it will take a several years for the committee to fully address it. Until that happens Denmark will not know whether its disability regulations – or any revisions to them – run afoul of the agreement.

Stig Langvad, chairman of the disability group Danske Handicaporganisationer and the Danish member of CRPD, called the delay unacceptable and damaging to the process.

“I think it is absolutely ridiculous that it takes this long," Langvad told The Copenhagen Post. "Denmark has an obligation to hand in status reports every four years, so because they handed in a report in August in 2011, and it will take four or five years to get that looked at, Denmark will have to hand in a new report before they even get the results from the last report.”

Langvad added that UN has set aside a just two weeks each year, once in spring and once in the autumn, to review country reports. Each report and subsequent response must be translated into the six official UN languages and the sheer numbers of countries involved make it an impossibility to get through in a timely manner, Langvad said.

“It’s a question of resources plain and simple, in terms of time and finances. The UN is unfortunately a very slow moving organisation and even if we got an extra week a year to address the reports, an increase of 50 percent, it still would make little difference. It’s very frustrating and a shame that such a positive initiative is now losing steam and legitimacy due being stuck in this quagmire.”

The director of the CRPD, Ron McCallum, confirmed a lack of resources was slowing approvals. He added that steps are being taken to speed up the long-winded process, including giving the committee more time.

So far it has only been possible to meet with one country a week and given that there are 26 reports so far, it could take a decade if things don’t change. Additionally, there are 110 countries that have ratified the CRPD and thus even more reports are on the way.

Jeppe Kerckhoffs, of Dansk Handicap Forbund, the national association for the disabled, maintained that the delay will only serve to further enfeeble an already difficult situation for the disabled.

"We have already noticed that the disabled have fewer rights, so if it’s going to take several years to have the report analysed then it's really a question of how effective it’s going to be and that is a major problem."

Factfile | IMR disabilty study

On February 28 the IMR launched a new website, www.handicapkonvention.dk, in a bid to address the condition of the disabled here in Denmark. The site contains information about the rights of the handicapped according to the convention and describes the areas in which Denmark is struggling to live up to it. Additionally, the site provides resources and is handicap accessible, including all the decisions in sign language and easy-to-read text.

The IMR also published a list of the ten most important challenges Denmark faces coming into line with UN disability convention. The topics were chosen based on the number of people that are affected or because they are particularly detrimental to the people with a handicap. The ten most critical areas are within the realms of equality and discrimination, accessibility, prejudice, psychiatry, self-determination and political participation, nationality, education, employment, health and action plan.

Read the entire UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.