How to talk about disability & human rights

Thanks to Catherine Townsend from Wellspring Advisers for allowing me to share this fascinating and incredibly useful report by the Frameworks Institute on how to talk about disability and human rights.   The report is the first stage in a longer exercise in finding more effective ways to communicate about disability in more persuasive ways.       Perhaps the most challenging question posed in the report is whether the language of rights is particularly helpful at all where disability is concerned….

In summary, the report found that disability organisations (those working in the international sphere) typically:

  • Blitzed on unframed facts and numbers which only experts understand
  • Described the situation of disabled people without explanation
  • Concentrated on problems while offering few if any solutions, removing any sense that problems could be fixed
  • Relied on crisis stories, which also tends to overwhelm (or excuse) any sense that problems can be addressed
  • Employ vivid stories, which counterproductively locate problems at the individual rather than systemic level

I expect we can all recognise these fault-lines in communications around disability and other areas.   Frameworks recommend that effective communication demands:

  • Using thematic stories, not individual stories, to foreground the systemic factors shaping outcomes
  • Leading with values, not facts/information
  • Combining urgency with efficacy – people must feel a problem can be solved.  Set out the solution
  • Avoiding crisis language
  • Developing and deploying examples that emphasise solutions, not problems
  • Connecting outcomes to society as a whole – explain how the positive or negative outcomes facing disabled people affect everyone
  • Contextualising numbers – don’t expect them to speak for themselves
  • Avoiding myth busting – it tends to affirm the myths, not overcome them.

Fully adopting the lessons herein can be deeply challenging, but the rewards could be enormous.


3 thoughts on “How to talk about disability & human rights

  1. Totally agree – but would add – address inequality in accessing human rights – otherwise it is too easy to dress up austerity economics within rights rhetoric. Perhaps on closer analysis one of your points addresses this – I will read the full link. Thank you

  2. Thanks Neil. There is much talk about the need for alternate frames and counter narratives in the arena of ‘closing civil society space’ as well, but little by way of practical application of this hypothesis from which we can draw learning as to whether it works and how. These kinds of insights drawn from the above project are super helpful to see, thanks. The Fund for Global Human Rights is in the early stages of project exploration with Frameworks Institute and partners in Kenya which we hope we will get the green light to implement an in-depth project over the next couple of years that would help groups there re-frame their communications and the debate around the role and value of civil society that can influence public and policy-maker perception rooted in values that resonate with all. Questions for me include whether and how such re-framing communications strategies should and can integrate with other strategies such as constituency-building, or risk sitting in isolation and having limited impact. More on this in the months that follow I hope!

    • Hi James, it would be good to talk about this sometime. I’m not sure where you’re based? The Thomas Paine Initiative, which I direct, adopted a strategy which aimed both to ‘change the song’ (narrative) and ‘change the chorus line’ (constituency building) as part of a single theory of change. I’d argue each is contingent on the other for success as messengers are as important as message in reaching new, conflicted audiences. More recently we’ve broadened the focus so that our overarching goal is to ‘democratise’ human rights (reaching the ‘small places closed to home’) so in that in addition to strategic communications and alliance-building we want to find ways to encourage a broader base of civil society to draw on human rights in everyday practice.

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