International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Julio and Jorge, two young men in their twenties both suffer from severe autism. For years they were locked away in solitary cells.

Conditions in the psychiatric hospital that houses Julio have improved and the authorities are committed to finding him community care. © mdriAs the boys grew in their native Paraguay, their families found themselves unsupported and unable to cope. Julio at seven and Jorge at 12 were committed to the same institution that was also unsupported and unable to offer the level of care both children needed.

For 23 hours of every day for years they were locked in small isolation cells. They used the cell floor as their bed, toilet and plate for their food. Staff took them outside to hose them down.

The story of these two young men is not uncommon in most countries round the world. But campaigners for the rights of persons with disabilities are hoping that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force earlier this year, will make it easier to protect and promote the human rights of persons with disabilities.

The Convention and its Optional Protocol mark a major milestone in the effort to secure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay has noted, “The Convention confirms persons with disabilities as full and active members of society, with rights and entitlements, rather than people dependent on good-will or charity or people to be approached from a medical perspective.”

Part of this year’s campaign for the rights of persons with disabilities has also focused on the unlawful detention of many women, men and children with different types of disabilities in particular mental or intellectual disabilities. International human rights law is very clear that a disability in no case justifies deprivation of liberty.

States that ratify the Convention commit to repealing laws that allow the detention of persons because they have a disability, including mental or intellectual and they commit to ensuring that persons with disabilities have the right to live independently in the community with support if it is needed.

As of today more than 130 countries have signed the Convention and some 40 states have ratified it.

Reinforcing the central tenet of the Convention, this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities has as its theme, Dignity and Justice for all, which is the message of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Julio and Jorge, the future is brighter.

Because of the investigation by the organization Mental Disability International and Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales and a subsequent ruling by the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights, conditions in the psychiatric hospital that housed Julio and Jorge are improving. Paraguay has also become a state party to the Convention.

The authorities are committed to finding Julio some form of community care. 

Jorge, because his mother has found work and his siblings are older has been able to return home. His progress has been remarkable - he’s now rediscovered a range of social skills. He’s able to dress himself, feed himself and use the bathroom.

The story of Julio and Jorge is not unusual.

High Commissioner Pillay has warned there is much to be done, that the experience of many persons with disabilities is far removed from the vision of a world in which the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all human beings are realized without distinction.

Pillay is now urging imperative attitudinal change alongside implementation of the legal, policy and programme changes at national level to make the Convention a reality for persons with disabilities.