Psychosocial Disability: one of the most misunderstood areas of disability

If disability is one of the great human rights challenges of this century, then within this, psychosocial disability remains one of the most challenging and misunderstood areas of disability.  Paul Deany, DRF Program Officer

As a person with bi-polar and someone who has worked in the field of psychosocial disabilities, I believe this is one of the most marginalized areas of disability. Indeed, if disability is one of the great human rights challenges of this century, then within this, psychosocial disability remains one of the most challenging and misunderstood areas of disability.

Persons with psychosocial disabilities face many forms of stigma and discrimination, as well as barriers to exercising their civil, economic, social and cultural rights. These barriers are heightened by urbanization, increasing human insecurity, poverty, natural disasters, migration, hunger and conflict.

As I will outline, further barriers are posed by discriminatory legislation and practices depriving persons with psychosocial disabilities of legal capacity and liberty, and by violence, abuse, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment on the basis of disability.

Psychosocial disability differs in that it can be episodic, invisible and often not well identified. It may be hidden by individuals or their families out of shame, denial or the fear of being locked up and stripped of their most basic rights. In countries where persons with psychosocial disabilities are victims of repressive laws, forced incarceration, stigma and systemic abuse, this fear is very real.

None of this is entirely new. Persons with psychosocial disabilities have been marginalized, shunned and demonized throughout history. We often see psychosocial disability associated with criminality, deviance and detention. Having a psychosocial disability is still used as grounds for excluding people from entry into countries, including the US, and from other basic freedoms afforded under the disability convention.

Much of the discourse on psychosocial disabilities is also couched in medical and health terms. There is still a strong push from parts of the psychiatric community to view psychosocial disabilities as largely biomedical and health issues. Many people have expressed strong concerns about the increasing push to over-prescribe anti-psychotic drugs, mood stabilizers and other pharmaceuticals in a well-orchestrated global push to increase medication of mental health problems, which blatantly promotes an expansionist agenda of the mental health industry and not the rights of individuals.

The challenge here is that in many countries, the system is dominated by the medical model to the detriment of rights and quality of life. Building more psychiatric hospitals is seen as the main solution. Fundamental issues such as housing, support, jobs, education, voting, and political and legal rights are seldom considered. Persons with psychosocial disabilities are under the domain of psychiatry and in this domain, their rights are abused.

Of even greater concern are countries which classify psychosocial disability as a separate form of disability, governed under mental health legislation, and then use this legislation to remove many of the rights and protections guaranteed under the CRPD and instruments, such as the Convention Against Torture.

Some countries are bringing back retrograde and draconian mental health laws which strip people of their rights. This begs the question: Why is psychosocial disability dealt with by law in many countries as an entirely different form of disability? It seems we are still heavily influenced by centuries of mainly western legislation and treatment which views psychosocial disability as a separate type of disability.

In many countries where basic rights and services are sorely lacking, we have the situation where persons with psychosocial disabilities are shackled, chained and incarcerated by the state or their family, against most fundamental rights and laws – sometimes indefinitely.

This forced and brutal detention is endemic in many less developed and even some fairly well developed countries and has been documented by Human Rights Watch in a diverse range of countries.

Source –

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