This article was originally published on the WhatWENeed blog here as a part of CRPD refresh.
My earliest interactions with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was in 2016, almost 10 years after my country Kenya had ratified it. Now it has been almost 5 years since, but this human rights instrument has played such a huge impact in my life – not only how I view my experiences as a woman with a psychosocial disability, but even how I do my advocacy now for the inclusion for people with disabilities in my community.
For many years, I heard that ‘a mental illness is an illness as any other.’ I did not however understand then, why it was so difficult to disclose this; Why I could not find the strength to say at my workplace that I desired much more than just a desk in an office. I needed more support, an understanding, an awareness from my colleagues that even if how I experienced the world around me was different, it did not mean that I was any less competent or any less a good person.
So I kept all these experiences to myself, which did not improve when I kept losing my jobs one after the other. I heard more and more people talk about self-stigma and I almost internalized it.Until that day, my colleague explained to me, something I had not envisioned before. He asked me whether I could view my experiences differently. He invited me to the realization that having a ‘mental illness’ in itself was not a problem, rather, to try and conceive of environments where I would receive supports to thrive. He asked whether self-stigma was an idea that I wanted to carry forward or I wanted to view my experiences vis a viz the role that my community had played, and kept playing, in supporting me to actualize my dreams.
For me, this was my light bulb moment. This is it. To start appreciating that it is okay, I did have an impairment. But much more than that, to be shown that, there were barriers in the environment that resulted in my little participation more so in the workplace on an equal basis with others. In a gentle yet powerful way, I was introduced to the CRPD.
Now I started to see that such a monumental human rights treaty arose from the history of great leaders before me, who had faced oppression and exclusion. Society deemed them to be different, but their voices joined together with allies in the disability movement. Those voices and experiences of people with psychosocial disabilities could also be acknowledged and these strong voices go down history books as being the voice that made many of us move away from ‘mental health’ into ‘inclusion.’
And no, my experiences with mental distress did not change. Yes, I stopped looking for a magic pill for sure! What changed was that the more I became aware of my rights; of the place that I occupy in my community, of the critical role I too play in making my community what it is. Then it became more important, to go after all these things. And I hold within me so much gratitude for all leaders who went before me, who negotiated the CRPD and the central place for people with psychosocial disabilities in it. Because without it, I may not have made strides in my life. Maybe it would have been hard to ask for reasonable accommodation which highly supports me in my work. Maybe our voices as people with psychosocial disabilities would not have been this visible.
Many people think that experiences of psychosocial distress belong primarily to the health sector. I see that as a very problematic view. Health systems should be able to work for everyone, including those experiencing psychosocial distress. Achieving high quality standards of care for both physical and mental health should reach all people, whether they have disabilities or not. Therefore, when people with psychosocial disabilities are seen as primarily just needing ‘mental health care’, it takes away from them, their rights to inclusion in all other spheres of life.
It is for this reason that the changes I envision are: honest and safe spaces where communities inclusive of people with and without disabilities in their diversities, availing of tools that ensure they achieve their potential within the communities where they live in. Such tools should include laws that are not discriminatory, support services that respond to the requirements of people; communities be devoid of discriminatory and violative practices, etc. My vision also calls for accountability to respecting the human rights of all, more so for communities of people who have experienced oppression and marginalization in their own communities. A change within the healthcare system as well that sees people as objects in need of being saved from their ‘illnesses’ to one that respects people’s choices and accords them dignity; a change to communities that include all, cognizant of their differences and accountable to ensuring that all people in their diversities have space to have their voices heard and listened to.
About “CRPD refresh”
This year, the campaign runs a section on “CRPD refresh”. This theme gives a platform for people with disabilities and DPOs who have been carrying the CRPD torch since long, to speak their minds about what this has meant for them. It is also a space to recall and gather again the insights and intelligence of the Convention for sharing with the world at large, making an invitation for those yet uninitiated into its inspiring vision, to join us!! We call out specifically to young people with psychosocial disabilities in the Asia Pacific region to flavour the CRPD through sharings in this section.
Elizabeth is a disability rights self-advocate. Her advocacy is inspired by her own lived experiences as a woman with a psychosocial disability. She started writing from a very early age, for it was the best way that she could express that which remained unspoken. She uses writing to agitate for change; to draw attention to marginalisation, and to call attention to injustices around her. She feels immensely privileged to have been a part of the Bridge training IDA-IDDC Bridge CRDP-SDGs training in past years which has also greatly supported her advocacy for an inclusive society where all persons with disabilities enjoy all human rights. She blogs at https://elizabethombati.wordpress.com/.