What We Take for Granted…

By Leila Alfaro

The beautiful Andes, somewhere south of Mendoza

July 22nd, 2019

This is my last week in Mar del Plata. The last month has been tough for my family and me, as we have struggled with maintaining our Argentinian routine, so different from our regular one, and have been feeling homesick, missing our family and friends. I am very excited to head back home, but I am also very thankful for my time here, for the encounters I have had, the things I have learned, the places I have visited and the memories I have made. As the weeks progressed, I often had to fight the disconcerting thought that my presence here would ultimately prove to be useless and that in the end, I would realize just how little I had accomplished this summer.  I partly blame this on the slow pace of life here but these fears, certainly, were also anchored on the notion of just how complex issues pertaining to disability rights are, and that there is no single way of tackling them without eventually uncovering further underlying issues of a more complex nature. Exploring the field of disability rights, namely in a country with a fragile economy, proved to be beyond frustrating at times. A cloud of helplessness and desolation was hanging constantly over my head, as I had to come to terms with the extent to which ableism is embedded in the structures of society and just how limited the impact of rights and laws on paper can be, when there is simply so much that has to change in order to guarantee a dignified life for members of such marginalized group.

While I had no experience whatsoever in the field, especially in the Argentinian context, I found myself learning so much, so quickly. By learning from the situation in this foreign country, I inevitably felt the urge to find out more about the reality back in Canada. One of the most interesting moments in the context of the workshops with people with disabilities was when I was able to present a brief overview of how Canada approaches voting rights for people with disabilities. By communicating the reality of my country, I was able to share interesting links, like how the issue of an aging population has an incidence on the existing efforts of accommodation.

Curiously, when I elaborated on how there is still much to accomplish in Canada as well, I was met with what felt like skepticism. Argentinians certainly hold Canada in high regard, since they see our institutions as well-funded, efficient and “serious”. The irony is not lost in me, that as much as they admire said efficiency, they do not seem interested in a more rapidly-paced lifestyle. Indeed, such tradeoffs are inevitable, and we are not always in a position to be adequately critical of them given our own biases and perspectives which are ultimately limited by our personal realities.

Being abroad, I have mostly been able to reflect on the things I take for granted (like the people who are part of my daily life, the comfort of my home or some of my favourite foods!), but I have also learned about what people here take for granted. As I have become interested in the topic of voting rights for people with disabilities, I have begun working on a research project of my own. As I debated on which topic to present to the Centre for approval, I ultimately felt the strong urge to address the mandatory aspect of Argentinian suffrage. I found it fascinating how the people with whom I interacted could be so comfortable communicating their own frustrations regarding their system yet seemed very willing to justify it when I would question factors such as mandatory voting. I was surprised to find that virtually no literature exists on the subject in relation to disability (I was told there had been some kind of project done in another university that tackled this issue, but I have yet to learn more about it). I quickly became under the impression that, while Argentinians do recognize the particularity of their voting system in this regard (mandatory voting), they are quite satisfied with it. When it comes to discussing and promoting the ability to vote, basically no attention was brought to how the principle of mandatory voting might also impact persons with disabilities. This notion exemplifies the degree of ableism in society in terms of what the State expects from its citizens, seemingly ignoring the existing gap between those who have impairments and those who do not have any.

While I was pleased to hear that my research project relied on a novel outlook of the situation, I expect to gain more insight on the underlying ambiguities of mandatory voting, especially given the historical context of the Argentinian political scene. In elaborating on this topic, I hope to encourage other researchers and clinical workers to become more sensible to how the obstacles people with disabilities face are linked to more complex structural factors of society that we tend to take for granted.

My going-away dinner with members of the Extension Group on Voting Rights for PWD, comprised of graduate students and faculty from multiple fields


The last workshop in which I participated, especially tailored for people with visual impairments

Time, Suffrage and Disability

By Leila Alfaro

If I had to choose one aspect for which I am most grateful when travelling, it would be the resilience I am forced to develop as I find myself in new, challenging situations. Beyond my love for visiting new sights, tasting different foods and meeting new people, I appreciate being challenged when facing cultural aspects so different from my own to the point I must undertake a process of deep introspection, contemplating the Other as well as my own reflexes and the things and practices I take for granted. Since arriving to Argentina, I have had plenty of time to experience and, most importantly, to reflect on not only the cultural, but also the geographical, infrastructural and economic gaps between this side of the pole and home, up in the North.

Having had the privilege of knowing Mexico and most of Central America, I knew coming here that I should brace myself for an experience in which time could not be measured the same way as back home. It amazes me that, even with everything I know and have lived, I am still surprised seeing how time can move so slowly here. Through meetings postponed, messages unanswered, workshops cancelled, last-minute schedule changes and strikes, my patience has been tested on several occasions. However, as I learn to expect the unexpected, I grow more comfortable with this kind of difference, knowing I am being confronted to my biggest flaw (impatience) and that at the same time I have the opportunity to build on some very valuable skills, namely autonomy, resourcefulness and, of course, resilience.

While I recognize the slow tempo of the city has kept me from achieving the most of this experience work-wise, I also recognize the good it entails – I appreciate this stress-free lifestyle, which is a nice break from the North American way. I also admire the role of family in Argentina, the importance of making time for those around us and for self-care. More time on my hands also means I can enjoy more walks on the beach and more delicious parillas with my family. It also allows me to be more critical about the experience itself; whenever a situation arises, I can truly take a moment and reflect on the why and the implications of whatever is happening for the Argentinian people and for me as a visitor (strikes related to the weakened economy, classes cancelled due to bad weather affecting infrastructure, unavailability of certain goods are some examples of circumstances which I have faced during my time here).

Work may be slow here, but it still happens. I have had the chance to join an interdisciplinary, graduate clinical group working on promoting voting rights for people with disabilities. So far, this has taken the shape of workshops in schools and community centers for individuals with disabilities, lectures aimed at undergraduate students and inter-faculty discussions. I take this work very seriously as it has taught me a great deal about political perspectives and disability rights in the region. In any democracy, we can reasonably expect people with disabilities to have more difficulty enforcing their right to vote without proper accommodations provided by the State – but, what happens when voting is also a duty? In Argentina, an absence to the polls must be justified in order to avoid sanctions; this certainly entails a new set of complex challenges for anyone, and for citizens with disabilities in particular. Because of the unique nature of suffrage in Argentina, addressing it in light of issues of diversity and inclusivity is of utmost importance. I appreciate this opportunity especially given the precarious situation in the country in the context of the upcoming elections this fall.

As the last half of my internship begins, I am starting to feel a bit homesick, but I look forward to new learnings and to continue discovering what this country has to offer (I am excited to visit Mendoza and Buenos Aires this upcoming week!), and in the end I know it will have seemed like it all happened in the blink of an eye.

There is no schedule

By Francesca Nardi

“Horario no hay”.

“There is no schedule”.

This was one of the first phrases that I heard on my first day at my new job in Argentina and asked what time I should be expecting to arrive and leave the office every day.

After finishing 1L exams, and leaving 12 hours later for a grueling 36 hour journey to Mar del Plata, Argentina, this was the last sentence I ever expected to hear. Like many law students, our lives are governed by strict class and study schedules, with many of us often having to schedule in time to do basic things like eating and sleeping. This was my first introduction to a completely different sense of time that would shape much of my Argentine experience.

I had never realized the extent to which schedules shape cultures until I arrived in Argentina and was forced to reflect on the way I think about time. In Canada, and especially in the legal profession, time is money. In my experience in Argentina, things move much more slowly, people arrive late to almost everything, and deadlines are merely a suggestion. At first, I took this as a frustrating indication that my time wasn’t valued. How was it that things could seem to move so much more slowly here?

The last six weeks have taught me that the laissez-faire approach to time and schedules in Argentina is not a sign of disrespect for other people’s time, but precisely the opposite. The laid back approach to scheduling here comes from a recognition of how valuable time is, and the importance of making space in life for the things that are important. In Mar del Plata, people are extremely physically active, spending time outside walking and running on the beach, dancing, or working out in a gym. This is seen as an indispensable and important part of life. Argentinians are also incredibly social and family oriented, always setting aside time to get together with friends and family for an asado on the weekends, or to go and enjoy a coffee and conversation somewhere together. The relatively relaxed approach to time in my workplace reflects a recognition that while work is important, there are so many other things in life that warrant time and energy. A flexible schedule expresses this, and acts as a reminder that it is up to all of us to prioritize the things in our lives that truly matter, while still getting things done in the workplace.

Since arriving in Argentina, I have been able to explore a variety of areas of the law, including disability and fertility law, while also collaborating with the legal clinic on issues of disability rights in the context of public transport. Mar del Plata has a long way to go to making the city accessible for people with disabilities, the elderly, and parents with young children. Working on this project has allowed me to look more critically at the structures of the cities I have lived in, and become more aware of the architectural and attitudinal barriers that prevent everyone from enjoying the city and accessing essential services.

I have also been working on a project exploring the implications of prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing on the disability community. This project has forced me to think more deeply about the complex reality of technological development, and the challenges presented by technologies that may seem benign and even positive. Finally, I collaborated with a group of students at the faculty on an international research paper examining the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities throughout other UN committees and oversight bodies.

In my spare time, I have been taking advantage of the truly spectacular beaches in Mar del Plata to spend time outside, learning to dance tango, and making friends at the local gym. On the weekends, I have been travelling and getting to see some of the incredible corners of this beautiful country! Like any new experience far from home, there have been challenges, but the Marplatense community have embraced me with open arms, and have already made this summer an unforgettable part of my law school experience!

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

By Keiran Gibbs

In 2006 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which has since gained worldwide support faster than any human rights convention in history [1]. The CRDP was first proposed by Gilberto Rincón Gallardo, a former Mexican politician appointed as the head of the Anti-Discrimination Council. Mexico was also the first country to ratify it, yet, the CRDP has had little effect on Mexican law and practice. Such a lack of political will on Mexico’s part has resulted in severe continuous violations of the rights of at least thousands of people detained in psychiatric and social security institutions throughout the country.

In November, 2010, Disability Rights International (DRI) and the Mexican Commission for the  Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (CMDPDH in Spanish), released a report[2], that revealed a tragic reality that vividly depicts  Mexico’s breach of acceptable norms. While the living conditions in many of Mexico’s psychiatric and social welfare institutions are appalling[3], the legal structure that denies  autonomy to those diagnosed as having a disability is arguably just as troubling. This legal structure which allows for voluntary or involuntary internment is virtually identical in all of Mexico’s thirty-two states, and it often keeps the thousands of people living in  these institutions unable to ever leave, regardless of whether not they have a disability at all[4].

Generally all that is required for ‘voluntary’ internment into an institution for the disabled is the signature of a family member and a medical professional (i.e., a psychiatrist validating the diagnoses of ‘disabled’). Often the institution itself retains tutorship[5]; the person with a disability then deemed  incapable of ever making decisions for her or himself. Needless to say, involuntary incarceration creates an even lower standard for the exercise of autonomy; the requirement for a family member’s signature is eliminated. An aggravating factor is that such decisions to institutionalize people with disabilities are virtually never reviewed by a third party[6].

One particularly stark example of the detrimental effect this can have is illustrated in said report, where a child who had no disability whatsoever, spent her entire formative years in an institution, in which she might expect to be adhered to an object for prolonged periods of time[7]. Yet, as an abandoned child her legal guardian, the institution and the very same actor causing the harm, had complete authority over her and her whereabouts.  It is in fact a ludicrous circumstance and it would be practically impossibly not to sympathize with the feelings of  helplessness that such official barriers to the exercise of autonomy must cause this child and others like her. Whether or not one has a disability should not eliminate one’s capability in having reasonable autonomy over the decisions in one’s life.

While it isn’t unreasonable for States to ask for some patience as they attempt to reach the ideal situation that the Convention demands, any stalling on Mexico’s part in revising the laws that act as an impediment to making the Convention a reality, specifically the laws dealing with tutorship and capacity,  is not only unreasonable in this instance, it is indeed criminal.

[1] [1] U.N. Enable, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=150

[2] Abandoned and Disappeared: Mexico’s Segregation and Abuse of Children and Adults with Disabilities [ November, 2010]. Available at: http://www.disabilityrightsintl.org/media-gallery/our-reports-publications/. Also see some of the video documentation which contributed to the report at: Neglect at a Mexico mental institution, ABC News, Nightline, http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/

[3] Ibid. See for example Section I: Conditions in Institutions, which documents many institutions that leave the patients in urine and feces, leave them in restraints for prolongued periods of time, distribute pills from the same cup to all patients, as well as other incidents of physical and verbal abuse.

Ibid. See especially Chapter I: Segregation from society of people with disabilties (A) & (B).

[5] Ibid. Chap I : As many as 80% of many of the institutions visited were considered ‘abandonados’, making the institution itself the legal guardian.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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