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National Empowerment Center - Articles

Rights are Universal

By Andrea Cooke - From NEC's Fall/Winter 1995/1996 Newsletter

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On August 11, 1995, this consumer received an insult that cut to the quick. On a flight to a conference I was to attend, as the flight attendant was asking if passengers wanted refreshments, the steward leaned over me (I was the first person on the outside) and passed over to the next passenger and then the next to find out their needs. After they were served, he came back to see if I needed anything. No where else in my section of the plane did I observe this pattern of service. I was outraged. When I mentioned it to a fellow consumer I was told not to make a big deal about it; it happens all the time. My reaction was there are lots of things that happen all the time that really shouldn't happen at all. However, the more glaring point is that our organization works hard to establish rights for those with psychiatric disabilities. But how can we insure those rights for us if they don't apply for others, for all? The discrimination I encountered was most probably because they assumed that I did not have the status the lawyer next to me did. Being a consumer was not the issue. But I had the rights to be treated as an equal and fairly and I wasn't.

Rights are universal; they apply to everyone or they are not rights, they are more like privileges. So when we don't uphold the same rights we have for persons who are not consumers, we are saying that we are privileged and not the owners of certain rights. I didn't stand up for myself quickly enough to make a difference, but at least I was able to see a larger context.

We cannot say that the rights of users/ex-patients/survivors are secure unless these rights are secure for everyone. We cannot say that we secured certain rights for users but that we must make exceptions for certain other groups. Martin Noemoeller's quotation made during the Nazi regime illustrates well why this is so:

In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak.

Psychiatric patients are not the only group that have been deprived of certain rights. For example, homosexuals, minorities and those with physical disabilities experience some of the same deprivation of rights that we do. So by upholding these rights whenever and wherever they appear, we can only strengthen our movement and our causes because the more people who are included the more pressure there is to ensure that everyone is included. When the voices of a cause reverberate across diverse movements, that cause can take up a life of its own and who can stop it then?

We must respect and uphold the rights of others in order to lead an ethical life. And it is only by leading an ethical life that we can best ensure the protection of our own rights.