UN committee chair Theresia Degener speaks at UC Berkeley

Jessica Schwabach/Staff

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Update: 10/16/18: Some of the language in this article has been updated.

About 20 people — ranging from UC Berkeley graduate students to elderly community members — came to Dwinelle Hall on Monday, where they heard Theresia Degener, the only female member and chair of the United Nations, or U.N., Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, speak about her work on the committee.

Degener gestured with her feet during the talk, explaining the difference between the “social model” and “human rights model” of disability and speaking about her personal experiences.

“It was a wonderful experience … to get to learn from professor Degener,” said Alyse Ritvo, a third-year UC Berkeley law student who had read Degener’s work and attended the event. “She’s a really kind person, in addition to being amazing and smart.”

At the start of the event, everyone in the room introduced themselves, concluding with Degener. She talked about different layers to her work, including being a U.N. chair and a disability and women’s rights activist. Degener added that she studied at UC Berkeley during her graduate education, which she described as being “one of the best years of my life.”

She started by addressing new concepts brought to international human rights law, especially the human rights model of disability as opposed to a social model, which understands disability as a social construct, Degener said. She added that the human rights model is “more holistic.”

According to Degener, a human rights outlook is essential because it sees disability as “only one layer of identity,” not the entire identity.

“We need to respect human dignity and autonomous choices and how each person with a disability wants to cope with his or her impairments,” Degener said. “That must be a process of negotiation.”

Some of her talk focused on policy and how countries can implement laws that enable adult coma patients, or patients unable to communicate, to become more autonomous. According to Degener, most laws rely on a third party to determine what is best for the patient when they are unable to express their preferences. She said laws should, instead, force the third party to think on behalf of the patient and what they would want.

She also discussed stigmas surrounding those with disabilities, including the idea that individuals with disabilities are incapable of looking after themselves. She said these ideas are often perpetuated in media, citing a particular TV commercial broadcasted in Germany.

“I see the diminishing of civic space for human rights organizations all over the world. I see with great concern the retreat of the U.S. from the U.N. has had already very detrimental effect,” Degener said. “You should never stop believing in miracles.”

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.