Abandoned and disappeared: the state of human rights violations for persons with disabilities in Mexico

I have been in Mexico City for two weeks now working with Disability Rights International’s Latin America office and it has been an eye opening experience. The rights of persons with disabilities (PwD) are often swept aside, and PwD are frequently treated either as wards of the state or drains on social welfare, when they are just as deserving of equal recognition before the law. People with psycho-social disabilities are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, as they are frequently denied their legal capacity to make even the most basic decisions about their lives. In Mexico as in many other places, PwD are time and again abandoned to inhuman treatment in isolated psychiatric institutions.

For a popular culture reference you might imagine the novel or film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The work remains a classic reminder of the treatment of mental patients in the USA during the 1960’s. The film portrays deplorable treatment of patients; they are tied to beds, heavily sedated, stigmatized, patronized, and at the end of the film the protagonist McMurphy is lobotomized. While the work remains a timeless reminder of psychiatric institutions of the past, conditions today are far worse in much of the world.

DRI’s Mexican office published a report in 2010 documenting much of the inhumane treatment that PwD suffer in state and private institutions, illustrating the various violations of local and international law. The report entitled “Abandoned and Disappeared, Mexico’s Segregation and Abuse of Children and Adults with Disabilities” examined institutions in five Mexican states and in the Federal District, uncovering gross human rights abuses. Beyond violations of well-established international conventions such as the UN Covenant on Economic, Political, and Social Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture, the American Convention of Human Rights, Mexico’s treatment of PwD violates many provisions of the recent UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which Mexico was instrumental in creating and which it ratified in 2007.

The key findings of the report are sometimes difficult to read. The first finding is that children with disabilities are disappeared and trafficked. The Mexican department of Integral Family Development is in charge of registering the admission of patients to state facilities, but in reality no such records are kept and children disappear into the system never to be found again by their families. For example, Ilse Michelle Curiel Martinez was placed in an institution at the age of six, despite her grandmother offering to take the child. When the parents went to look for Ilse at the Casita del Sur where she had been placed, she had disappeared. 22 other children have supposedly disappeared from the same institution, likely victims of child trafficking.

The next key finding has to do with inhumane treatment of patients which is at least cruel and unusual, and in many cases should be classified as torture. In state hospitals, patients are permanently tied to beds and wheelchairs, in some instances for most of their lives. These patients suffer muscular and skeletal deformations, are deprived of stimuli, are at risk of requiring amputation of limbs that receive poor circulation, and the patients are frequently left in their own waste for long periods of time. In some cases where physical restraints are deemed insufficient, patients are subjected to heavy sedation and even psychosurgery such as lobotomies.

Many other patients (often the majority) could easily live in the community with some support, but either their families are not willing to take them in, or other reasonable accommodations is not offered. These patients languish in institutions for a lifetime, receiving no treatment, habilitation, or rehabilitation. They are warehoused. To make matters worse, their living conditions are inhumane and degrading. Sanitation is usually abysmal, patients are malnourished, under-clothed, and when they are bathed there is typically little to no privacy.

To make matters worse, patients lose all legal and practical control over their lives. Legal capacity is held by their families or the director of the institutions where they are kept. Decisions about treatment, sexual health, rehabilitation or therapy, are all outside their control.

The conclusion of the report is that PwD should be afforded their right to live within the community as provided for by article 19 of the UNCRPD, and a process of de-institutionalization should start immediately. More generally, PwD must be provided the key rights guaranteed by the UNCRPD and other human rights conventions. The Mexican state is falling far short of its obligations under domestic and international law.

The DRI report gives some idea of the subject matter I will be dealing with this summer. Since arriving in Mexico I have been helping with this year’s Zero Project Report, a study of how the UNCRPD is being implemented across the world, what barriers exist, and which practices have worked in advancing its objectives. The Dutch Essl Foundation has sponsored the study, which seeks to focus attention on states which are not living up to their obligations, and to suggest practices that have worked in others places to overcome obstacles. In the near future I will also be working on a project relating to human rights abuses in Guatemala, and on a proposal to reform the Federal District’s civil code. In the coming weeks I hope to learn more about how the rights of persons with disabilities can be protected and I hope to tell you more of the work we’re doing.

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