File photo: Marcel Oosterwijk, Flickr.com

Cape Town - The battle for ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities was far from over, said Braam Jordaan, a deaf South African United Nations human rights advocate.

Policies pertaining to the rights of persons with disabilities are great, but what “great purpose” do they serve if they are not implemented and remain on the shelf, or are not correctly enforced, Jordaan said on Wednesday.

Jordaan, who is currently in the United States has been a UN human rights advocate for four years. He is also a filmmaker and animator, and serves as a council member for the UNICEF Global Partnership on Children with Disabilities. Jordaan is also a representative for the World Federation of the Deaf.

“Advocacy work can be very tough and cumbersome, but it can also be a very rewarding experience, especially when you see the difference you are making in people’s lives,” said Jordaan. He spoke in South African Sign Language.

Jordaan recently attended a White House event that celebrated persons with disabilities, which was themed “Americans with disabilities and the arts: A celebration of diversity and inclusion.”

The event celebrated persons who have different abilities to what society perceives as the ‘norm’ and was one of many events commemorating 25 years since the US effected the American with Disabilities Act.

Gleaming, Jordaan recalled how the White House’s Office of Public Engagement invited him to the event.

“I have undertaken high-level engagements all over the world in a number of different roles, but this event is one of very special ones,” he said.

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, he said.

Jordaan added that he loves seeing Deaf leaders become visible on the stages of events, wherever he is in the world.

This visibility, he said, was key in making the world a better place for all.

Jordaan said the event showed that US President Barack Obama was “committed to building and sustaining a society that values the contributions of all our citizens and residents.”

Jordaan said through such events the US was setting an example for many countries in the way they were “focused on providing people with different abilities with access to the resources and training necessary for them to succeed in the workplace.”

He said was very important in the fight to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities on many fronts.

Jordaan said many governments have “policies, strategies and political statements that purport to promote social inclusion but the progress towards this goal is still very slow.”

The US has had its American with Disabilities Act (ADA) for a long time, while South Africa’s Department of Social Development has only recently submitted a White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to Cabinet for consideration.

This paper, once approved he said, “will commit authorities to advancing the rights of persons with disabilities by accepting full responsibility and accountability for delivering services to all South Africans.”

While South Africa may be a newcomer in the disability rights area, in 2007, the country became one of the first countries in the world to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Jordaan said the convention “recognises the importance of sign language, the deaf community and culture and protects the rights of all Deaf people to use sign language.”

However, despite this ratification, it has emerged that “South Africa had not adequately incorporated the Convention into its own legal framework, which weakened the effect of the Convention in South Africa. The States signed but they have never ratified the CRPD,” Jordaan said.

Access to education was critical, said Jordaan, and the fight to make South African Sign Language an official language in the country continues.

He said he considers the lack of signed teaching in education to be a blatant abuse of Deaf children’s right to quality education.

“Education is a right for deaf children and it is one of the key post-2015 development goals.”

He emphasised that “without the ability to use sign language on the most basic level, deaf children and students face significant barriers to being independent. Communication skills are fundamental to getting jobs and participating in the communities and family life”.

Jordaan recalled how the White House event was fully accessible to all who attended with interpreters and live-captioning (CART) made available.

However, he observed that even the US has much work to do in ensuring persons with disabilities are able to fully participate in mainstream society and its discussions. Jordaan pointed out the lack of captions on the White House’s new presidential Facebook page and official Facebook page.

“I really find it hard to celebrate 25 years anniversary of American with Disabilities Act (ADA) especially with the fact that the White house not doing honorable thing by upholding ADA at the same time,” Jordaan said.

“Attitudes towards online captioning have got to change, and leadership has got to come from top.”

He said “active participation” by all persons with disabilities in society means that everyone should be included.

As Disability Rights Awareness Month draws to an end, Jordaan said he applauded the South African government for taking its commitment to human rights seriously and said he looked forward to seeing the realisation of a world in which differently abled people could attain “equality and participation in social, economic and political life.”

Each action, he said counted. “No matter how small or poor a nation is, it still has a ‘voice’ and a say in the development of the world.”