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The Handicapped - Rights and Prejudices

Creator: Gunnar Dybwad (author)
Date: July 21, 1968
Source: Friends of the Samuel Gridley Howe Library and the Dybwad Family

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-* Presented at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia, 21 July, 1968.-


-**Professor of Human Development, The Florence Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare, Brandeis University.-


On a sunny autumn day in 1921 an English woman was sitting on top of the Mountain la Salève, overlooking Geneva. Her name was Eglantyne Jebb, and for years she had devoted her life to helping the world's needy and handicapped children. Whether they were victims of the war or victims of poverty, crippled by disease or by the lack of a proper home, the plight of these children across the world was her concern and that of the voluntary organizations in many countries which, in no small measure due to her inspiration, eventually came to found the International Union for Child Welfare.


But on that afternoon Eglantyne Jebb's mind was not concerned with problems of organization; rather she was taking stock of what she and her friends and colleagues in the charitable movements in many countries had been accomplishing in appealing for public generosity to aid unfortunate children. And suddenly an inspiration came to her, -- suddenly she saw that what really mattered was that help should come to these children as a matter of right, not as a consequence of generosity for charity's sake. And so she sketched out -- sitting on this mountain top -- a statement of principles that was destined to become part of a Magna Carta for the world. Entitling her document a "Declaration of the Rights of the Child," she developed principles affirming to all children a full opportunity to develop, to grow up under their parents' protection, to be assured protection from illness and exploitation and, if handicapped, to receive the needed special care and education.


The disruptions caused by the world-wide economic depression of the 1920's, the disruption by World War II and the preceeding years of totalitarianism have unfortunately overshadowed the singular achievement of this woman whose Declaration of the Rights of the Child found world wide acceptance. In the headquarters of the International Union for Child Welfare in Geneva there hangs an impressive array of state documents, in many languages, bearing the signature of reigning kings and queens and of other great national leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi.


In 1924 the Assembly of the League of Nations adopted this document, but subsequently it became painfully evident that the world was not ready for this forward looking and yet so simple Declaration. Not until 35 years later did it once again come to the forefront when, with some minor editorial alterations, it was adopted on November 20th, 1959, by the Geneva Assembly of the United Nations. And so I would like to take as a motto for my point of departure today Principle 5 of this Declaration; "The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition."


Certainly on the face of it this statement appears to be self-evident, so much a matter of course, that there hardly seems to be a need to elaborate on it. And yet far from reflecting what is, it is still only a statement of what ought to be, and against its realization is arrayed one of the most pervasive and corrosive forces in human society, the force of prejudice.


Prejudice is a defensive weapon. Man uses it when he feels threatened by the unknown and unfamiliar, and yet, prejudice is not so much a defense of the weak against the strong, -- its very perversity rests in the fact that it is used by the strong man who feels threatened in his security by those who are unlike him but particularly by those who, to him, are representing a human frailty and deficiency. Because of this last point, prejudice is so frequently a weapon disguised as benevolence.


One of the most frequent weapons of prejudice is segregation, and forever segregation has been rationalized as merely a way of making it possible for people who are alike to stay together. The black ghettos throughout the United States are just one example.


Prejudice will often claim that it only acts to protect people. Thus when we are concerned about inequalities facing the woman in the world of work, the explanation is quickly made that they exist only to protect her in her weakness. Two years ago when I was in Zurich, Switzerland, and the question of voting franchise for the women was once again being discussed, the men in the City Council made moving speeches to the effect that women should be spared the unpleasant aspects of political life. When the physically handicapped are excluded from work opportunities they seek, the reason given is that they must be protected from possible harm.


Prejudice typically does not look at the whole man; it picks on whatever characteristic makes him different whether it is the color of his skin or his national origin, his religion, his physical or mental condition and -- yes -- even his pocketbook, because in recent years we have increasingly seen the connection between poverty, discrimination and prejudice.

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