20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Tim Shriver

A Movement of the Heart: Promoting the value of children with intellectual disabilities
Twenty years ago, the Convention on the Rights of the Child broke ground for children’s rights, empowerment and dignity around the world. Since then, its position on children’s rights has prompted a broad rethinking of how children are viewed, valued and treated. It may seem obvious now, but the Convention was the first international document to argue that children are important and have intrinsic human rights.

Two decades before the Convention’s adoption, a small movement was born with values similar to those that would eventually be embodied in the treaty. On playing fields around the world, the Special Olympics welcomed children and adults with intellectual disabilities to train and compete in sports with a simple message: People with intellectual disabilities matter too. 

Sport for social change
For 40 years, Special Olympics has used sports as a catalyst for the health and empowerment of individuals with intellectual disabilities and the transformation of communities. Today, over 3 million athletes participate in more than 30,000 events each year. Every time athletes with intellectual disabilities defy society’s low expectations and assume the mantle of champions, they make a claim not only for their athletic achievement but also for their humanity. 

Sadly, for most children with intellectual disabilities, the full life promised by the Convention remains out of reach. Although nearly all of the world’s countries have adopted the treaty, by and large, its core principles have yet to be assimilated by communities and societies. Attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities remain negative and corrosive. Institutional care persists as a primary care model, and in many cases, it is subhuman. Education and employment opportunities remain limited.

Dignity and justice for all
On the 20th anniversary of the Convention, it is imperative for governments and individual citizens to press for a revitalized effort for its implementation around the world. I believe a new model of engagement — one that goes beyond legal frameworks to create a social movement — is necessary. Governments alone cannot do all the necessary work to change communities. While it is one thing to set a standard in law, it is quite another to set a standard in people’s hearts. The true fulfilment of the Convention will only come when children with intellectual disabilities, along with other children who face marginalization and discrimination, are treated with dignity and justice not just in writing but also in daily life.

This will not be easy. First, there is the glaring problem of translating the language of human rights into a movement of change for people with intellectual disabilities. Far too often, the subtle devaluation of children with intellectual disabilities creeps in, and transgressions against their dignity are overlooked. These children need a different view of rights precisely because their claim to self-worth and justice transcends their ability to advocate for themselves against entrenched discrimination.

In addition to re-conceptualizing rights for children with disabilities, there is an urgent need for individuals and communities to become strong advocates for the Convention. When rights are defined only by political or judicial norms, they do very little to advance a cause whose barriers are social and cultural. The future of rights for people with intellectual disabilities requires a new, positive message in which we all own the rights agenda. Without individuals becoming partners in the Convention, change will remain far off.

I have heard countless stories of the discrimination and stigma that are too often directed at children with intellectual disabilities. Taunts like ’retard‘ are hurled across schoolyards, dinner tables and street corners, leaving in their wake children in heartbreaking tears and desperate loneliness. Around the world, unknown numbers of children sit on concrete floors in dark institutions, sentenced to a prison of isolation. In every country, legions of parents can recount instances when they were advised to be ashamed of their own children. I am repeatedly told reasons why this occurs, and why it is unrealistic to accord children with intellectual disabilities a welcome. There are many reasons indeed.  But there is no good reason.

A celebration of differences
The child rights movement will be a movement of the heart. It will not be for children with intellectual disabilities; it will be led with them. It will engage billions of people in overturning the language of exclusion, in appreciating the diversity of the human family, in recognizing the beauty of each child. It will make basic education a right for every child. It will replace words like ’disability‘ with new constructs such as — ’diffability‘ — that celebrate the differences we all carry through life.

In the end, the child rights movement of the heart may become the most powerful legacy of the Convention. Through its decades of drafting and eventual adoption, the Convention marked a first in history — a moment when the community of nations acknowledged the dignity and intrinsic worth of all children. It will be fulfilled with another first — the moment when communities of citizens celebrate the value of every child with no exceptions or limits. When this happens, the age- old saying will be fulfilled: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, and it is marvelous to behold.

Timothy P. Shriver is the Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics. Before assuming this leadership position, he worked as an educator focusing on the social and emotional factors of learning. His work in substance abuse, violence, dropout and teen pregnancy prevention led to the creation of the New Haven Public Schools’ Social Development Project, considered the leading school-based prevention effort in the United States. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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