Center for Sport and Society works on UN disability treaty

Center for Sport and Society works on UN disability treaty

By Chris Estrada

The United Nations is developing a treaty on the human rights of people with disabilities, and Northeastern’s Center for Sport and Society has made its mark on the historic treaty.

The Disability in Sport program at the center is leading the treaty’s section on sports and, with 13 other groups, has formed an International Disability in Sport group in connection with the UN.

“Within the United Nations, there are treaties on the rights of different populations. There’s the treaty on the rights of women, a treaty on the rights of a child, a treaty on the rights of ethnic and racial minorities,” said Eli Wolff, coordinator of the program. “There are different treaties for marginalized groups. So this treaty for people with disabilities are those fundamental rights and standards. … The section on sport is to examine the rights of the disabled in sports.”

Wolff said he sees the treaty and its section on sport as a way for all sports organizations to know what they should do to accommodate disabled people who wish to play.

“Basically, an international treaty sets standards for people around the world,” Wolff said. “This provides them with an arena that says sport is a right and people with disabilities should be provided that.”

Wolff said the treaty has been in the works since 2002, and the center got involved after several international organizations contacted them. Up to that time, Wolff had garnered press by writing a brief for the Supreme Court to support disabled golfer Casey Martin in his successful battle against the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) for use of a golf cart in PGA events.

Wolff said the center will also be involved in implementing the treaty.

“There are two parts of this,” Wolff said. “One is the treaty process, and the other thing … is an international working group, which is a group of more international organizations that are coming together and talking about how to implement the treaty.”

Northeastern graduate Elise Roy is also involved as a legal advisor. Roy was a law student at Northeastern in 2003 when she began work on the UN treaty with Wolff. Roy said they were the only ones willing to push the sports issue.

Roy said her primary focus was educating delegates on an issue that had not been closely examined in the past. She said the convention was set up in a way that allowed her to play an active role.

“The neat thing about this convention is it’s the first time in UN History that NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have been given active status in the text negotiating process,” Roy said. “This means that the center gets to speak on the floor of the UN just as state delegates do.”

Roy also enlists the help of several people behind the scenes, including Jessica Anderson, who has worked in the UN’s High Commission for Refugees, and said a lot of the same principles applied to this treaty.

“There was a lot of crossover,” Anderson said. “The frame of human rights were the same. I just put the principles that I learned with the refugees to the disability movement.”

Anderson was also involved in keeping special protection for disabled women in sport as part of the treaty. Initially it was stricken out of the article on sport last year, but was pushed back in during a convention in January, Anderson said.

“We rallied lots of women’s rights organizations and the feedback was absolutely incredible,” Anderson said. “A lot of people were open-jawed about the first time that women were struck down, so we were pleased with the result.”

With the final treaty nearly complete, Roy and Anderson share Wolff’s optimism that it will positively impact disabled people who wish to play sports.

“I’m excited about the potential that the article we’ve been working so hard on brings,” Roy said. “I think if people take the initiative to carry on the momentum of the convention, then it will have the greatest impact on the disability population across the world.”

Anderson said she thinks this article will “empower the disabled and the non-profit organizations that serve them.” To her, it now comes down to applying these principles to the field.

“It’s time … to think about how this sport text will be applied,” she said. “I’m ready to see this on the ground.”

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