‘The recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’

It sounds like poetry. But this statement is taken from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, probably the most well-known, and most influential human rights documents in the world. The UDHR celebrates her 70th birthday this year, and at BIHR we are taking time to celebrate this fact, and reflect on what universal human rights mean to us.

The UDHR tells us that human rights are for everyone. But what does that mean today, 70 years after those words were written down?

Joe Powell from All Wales People First has a pretty good idea when we think about universal human rights in the context of people with learning disabilities:

One of the biggest challenges people with learning disabilities face in terms of human rights, is getting people to recognise us as being human in the first place. We started to close the long stay hospitals in the 1980s, but we didn’t truly change the culture of social care and service delivery.

Abuse of people with learning disabilities is still rife in the social care system. Often this abuse is about the way power is used by service providers, often at the expense of people with learning disabilities. Choice and control of the key decisions which affect their lives are sacrificed to meet the convenience of organisational objectives or the egos of senior personnel.

We also see this abuse occur in the deficit centred and risk adverse practice that is common when supporting people with learning disabilities, as well as the assumed superiority and patronising attitudes towards the very people service providers are supposed to be empowering.  At best this can mean people with learning disabilities feel disempowered and not valued, at worst in can lead to serious abuse as in the case of Winterbourne View and more recently Mendip House in Somerset. Abuse often caused because services refuse to eliminate less serious forms of abuse. This begs the question, where is the humanity in human services?

But at its very worst, it can lead to death. Over 1,000 people with learning disabilities die every year in our hospitals from preventable causes and people with learning disabilities have significantly poorer health outcomes than their non-learning-disabled peers. Some medical professionals are even advocating the termination of foetuses suspected of having Down’s Syndrome, because their lives are assumed to lack quality.  The cost of being denied human rights could not be more serious for citizens with learning disabilities.

I am personally sick and tired of hearing about human rights for people with learning disabilities as a reactive response to headlines of abuse or fatality. I want to hear about human rights for people with learning disabilities in the context of the positive and active role they can play in British society. As tax payers. As equals. Most importantly of all, as human beings.

As part of BIHR’s March for Human Rights campaign we are celebrating the rights in the Human Rights Act, and how they make the promise of the UDHR real here in the UK. Today, we are telling the story of Bryn, who used human rights to access life-saving treatment for a heart condition, challenging the everyday health inequalities Joe highlights.

Now, more than ever, universal human rights are relevant here in the UK. Our actions must make real the vision of the UDHR by ensuring that the human rights of everyone, including people with learning disabilities, are respected and protected.

Take action, join in

If you believe in universal human rights, take a moment to sign our UDHR birthday card. We will be delivering this card to the United Nations and the UK parliament on Human Rights Day later this year, to tell those in power that universal human rights matter here at home: www.celebratehumanrights.uk

Joe Powell is the National Director of All Wales People First, the united voice of self-advocacy groups and people with learning disabilities in Wales

Sophie Howes is a Senior Human Rights Officer at the British Institute of Human Rights