By: Samantha Backman
On a soft August evening, I gathered with my coworkers from BCNL to attend the launch of an art exhibition in the Crystal Garden, a lush green oasis in the heart of Sofia. The sun’s rays permeated the cover of the park’s majestic trees to illuminate an array of boards depicting striking photographs, vibrant illustrations, and thought-provoking texts. This was an exhibit with a particularly special mandate – to portray “socially-engaged” art.
With funding from the Sofia Municipality and in partnership with the Center for Non-Formal Education and Cultural Activity (ALOS), BCNL organized a contest through which young people were to engage with the topic of civil rights and freedoms via photography, visual arts, and writing. The competition had a particular focus on freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. The goal of this “Civil Alarm Clock” initiative was to develop the participants’ sense of civic culture and to stimulate their interest in human rights.
The award-winning works on display in the Crystal Garden evidenced a profound personal connection to a variety of themes, from environmental protection to “fake news.” In casting my eyes over the pieces, I was moved by the palpable commitment of these young artists to the defence of civil rights. They had mobilized art as a vessel to express their passion, their outrage, their determination.
This unique initiative has prompted me to reflect upon the importance of public outreach for civil society organizations. I am fascinated by BCNL’s mandate to foster connections with the general public in order to promote civil society and human rights on a societal level. Including everyday people in a dialogue about human rights seems perfectly in line with the grassroots, bottom-up orientation of civil society organizations. Moreover, I would like to believe that these kinds of efforts cultivate active citizenship and a sense of “community.” The exercise of thinking about what it means to have rights and what it is at stake when rights are trampled upon or lost undoubtedly makes us more sensitized to the world around us, with all of its injustice. If we can get people to “care” about human rights, then do we not have a greater chance of creating a more just and equal world? If people are awakened to the host of human rights issues around them, perhaps we can stem the tide of apathy towards the infringement of rights.
As I conduct my research on disability rights during my internship, I have come to see that there is a critical need for public outreach in this field. I have come to understand that securing legal reforms in the area of legal capacity and supported decision-making is only the first step towards ensuring that persons with disabilities enjoy the right to equality before the law in practice. Next, a broader cultural shift is required in terms of the ways in which persons with disabilities are viewed by their communities. Indeed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has called upon states to raise awareness about the abilities and rights of persons with disabilities, and to dismantle stereotypes and negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities. The Special Rapporteur affirms that “persons with disabilities must not be seen as objects of care, but rather as rights holders in the same way as every member of society.”
How exactly are states to engage with the public to raise awareness about disability rights and combat prejudice against persons with disabilities? This is certainly not a straightforward question. Nevertheless, civil society organizations may provide crucial assistance in carrying out public outreach initiatives, as they can lead sensitization efforts on a local scale. Firmly embedded in their communities, civil society organizations like BCNL are singularly well-positioned to broadly spread awareness of social issues and to build bridges between people and groups so that we may ultimately peel back stereotypes and secure equal rights on the ground.
 Catalina Devandas Aguilar, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities (theme: legal capacity reform and supported decision making)” (12 December 2017), online: < https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Disability/A.HRC.37.56.docx> at para 79.