September 12, 2006
The United Nations should be commended for embarking on a global civil rights effort to protect the rights of people with disabilities.
After five years of negotiations, countries this month can finally begin signing and ratifying a new resolution, known as the Treaty to Ban Discrimination Against People Who Have Disabilities.
The treaty would extend discrimination protections -- access to justice and the rights to education, health services and transportation -- for an estimated 650 million people with disabilities around the world.
While the U.N. resolution helps protect the rights of people with disabilities, it does not, however, require recognition of their assets or the benefits of including them in the work force.
This is important, as I know firsthand.
In 1987, my business partner Andrea Craig and I started the Wilson Street Grill, a neighborhood restaurant in Madison, Wis. There, people with disabilities made up one-third of our work force.
It was an experiment in creating a welcoming, sophisticated environment with high-quality food at reasonable prices. We decided to employ people with disabilities, including those with comparatively severe mental illnesses. What we found was that our employees with disabilities were among our greatest assets.
An environment that accentuated peoples' abilities -- not their disabilities -- also benefited our other employees, leading to low turnover rates and greater stability in our work force. After seventeen years in business, we had to close the restaurant when the building we were in was sold to build the county court house. But we learned that inclusiveness brings meaning to place and product. In this case, hiring people with disabilities turns the "problem" upside down.
People with disabilities are not people whose rights need to be simply protected, but they can be a social force -- key contributors to a community-based economy.
The United Nations is pointing the way forward globally on disability issues. And we must take our own steps locally to help destigmatize people with disabilities and recognize their contributions to our communities, our economy and our view of ourselves.
Nancy Christy is owner of the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food in Madison, Wis. Her current project is Porchlight Products, which aims to create sustainable artisan food products produced by people with disabilities and the formally homeless (www.nan-christy.com). She can be reached at email@example.com.