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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, left, and Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, shake hands Thursday after ratification of a convention on disabilities. ((Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press))

Canada has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the eve of the Paralympic Games in Vancouver.

"Canada is committed to promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and enabling their full participation in society," Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Thursday after delivering the ratified document to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York City as activist Traci Walters looked on, beaming, from her wheelchair.

"Ratification of this convention underscores the government of Canada's strong commitment to this goal," Cannon said. 

"We are officially turning on its head the notion that people with disabilities are helpless, in need of care and in need of pity," Walters said later.

"The government of Canada's ratification today of the convention is an historic event for Canadians with disabilities," said Marie White, national chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. "It signals the end of an era where people with disabilities were seen as objects of charity. Ratification of the convention makes real our goal of recognition as full and equal citizens of Canada."

The convention will require provincial governments to update several laws, including making schools inclusive to all students. That means disabled students can no longer be diverted to special schools as some still are, said Bendina Miller of the Canadian Association of Community Living.

She cited the experience of one young girl with an intellectual disability whose parents tried to enroll her in Grade One: "Their fears were proved when they walked in to the school office and the secretary took one look at them and said, 'We don't do Down's [Syndrome] here.'"

That student and others like her must now be integrated into a neighbourhood school.  

However, the convention is about much more than adding wheelchair ramps. It shifts the focus from institutionalizing those with disabilities to housing them in the community and allowing disabled people to challenge in Canadian courts, laws or policies that contravene the international law.

However, the signing did not go ahead without a glitch. The location of the news conference had to be hastily changed when organizers realized the original room was not wheelchair accessible.