Disability does not justify detention

In many national legal systems a disability, in particular of the mental or intellectual kind, constitutes lawful grounds for the deprivation of liberty. Born 57 years ago, John lived a normal life but in his twenties he developed a mental impairment.

Disability does not justify detention - © OHCHR“When I was young between 23 and 26 years, I had episodes of psychotic problems, everyone said I could not succeed in education,” says John, who was detained in a psychiatric institution for months. When he was released, he had nowhere to live because his family had given up a flat that had earlier been designated for him.

John (not his real name) fought all odds to live a normal life - becoming a teacher and later joining the labour market in various capacities.

He says his condition is recurrent and triggered by stressful events. On several occasions, he has been detained in psychiatric institutions against his will.

When three years ago he had a breakdown, he says, the police physically carried him to a mental hospital despite his protests. At the hospital he was restrained by belts that strapped his hands, legs and belly to the bed.

“Sometimes a doctor might think that it will be healthy for me to be, against my will, detained in a psychiatric institution and treated with medication which I do not like and I don’t want, but being locked up in a room only serves to worsen my condition.”

He says his recovery time is long and he would rather be with his family in a calm and supportive environment. John says, he still faces the risk of being institutionalised against his will unless the law is changed to guarantee that people with disabilities can make their choice.

Married with two children John notes that people with disabilities, like anyone else, should be given the choice to decide the type of treatment they want as stated in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 19 of the Convention recognizes the rights of persons with disabilities to live independently and be included in the community.

John is actively involved in promoting the implementation of the United Nations Disability Convention in his home country. He observes that in some countries persons with mental and intellectual impairments are not recognised as persons with a type of disability.

He hopes more and more countries will ratify the Convention and put in place laws and policies to protect people with disabilities.

In another case case, Jim, also not his real name, who has an intellectual disability, says he was institutionalised as if he was a child.

“The point I wish to make is that I was not placed there for my benefit but rather for the benefit of my mother,” says Jim.

Both men are members of a coalition of non-governmental organisations, under the umbrella body of the International Disability Alliance Forum, which provided OHCHR with information during the development of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force in May 2008.

They both agree that people with disabilities should be allowed to live freely in the community and be given the support they might need to do so and should not be forced to live in institutions. International human rights standards state that persons with disabilities have the right to live in the community.

“Many people with a disability have been institutionalised. It is not just those of us with a psychiatric or intellectual disability. I have met people who are deaf, blind, deaf/blind and who have a physical disability who have been institutionalised. We have all shared similar experiences and been affected by institutionalisation, it is no different regardless of your disability,” Jim says.

Persons with disabilities, as any other person, can be lawfully deprived of their liberty for having committed a crime or violated the law. In such cases, prisoners with disabilities are especially vulnerable to human rights violations as a result of conditions or treatment in detention, that do not respect their right to be treated with dignity on an equal basis with other detainees.

As part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, OHCHR designated 6 -12 October as the Dignity and Justice for Detainees week to draw attention to the rights of people who are deprived of their liberty. The initiative also focuses on the right of persons with disabilities to enjoy all their human rights on an equal basis with others when lawfully detained.

Persons with disabilities have the right to liberty and security on an equal basis with others under international human rights law. The existence of a disability can in no case justify a deprivation of liberty.

October 2008