Bronfman Prize goes to leading disability rights innovator Eric Rosenthal

Eric Rosenthal, founder and director of Disability Rights International (DRI), who has focused world-wide attention on the inhumane institutionalization of children and adults with disabilities, has been awarded the 2013 Charles Bronfman Prize for his global leadership in the field of human rights, advocating for those most vulnerable to abuse.

The prestigious Chares Bronfman Prize, accompanied by a $100,000 award (a portion of which Rosenthal will donate to DRI) is given annually to a humanitarian under the age of 50 whose work is informed by Jewish values and has a global impact that changes lives and inspires future generations.

For the past 20 years, Rosenthal, 49, has traveled around the world, documenting abuses against children and adults with disabilities in two dozen countries in North and South America (including the United States), Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia.

He and his team have been first-hand eyewitnesses to horrific abuse, such as in Hungary, where adults with disabilities who had behavioral challenges were placed into cages and left there, naked, for days on end. DRI has documented children with disabilities tied down in cribs or beds for years, often malnourished, denied medical treatment and exposed to filthy, freezing conditions. Many of the children don’t survive. During a phone conversation, he said that some of what he’s seen done to people with disabilities is “out of Auschwitz.”

A key focus of DRI is stopping institutionalization of children with disabilities, who are often placed in orphanages even though they have loving parents who are alive and want to care for them at home but lack the resources to do so.

As DRI says on its website: “There is now ample evidence that all children – including children with mental disabilities – can thrive in the community where family support programs are established. Despite this, many international charities continue to fund placements in orphanages, psychiatric institutions, and nursing homes at the expense of needed programs in the community.”

The son of a career diplomat, Rosenthal was raised in Washington D.C. and in Africa. His time in Africa gave him a global perspective and a connection to the Jewish community that motivates him as a human rights activist and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

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His interest in this field first started with mental health issues because his grandmother was diagnosed with manic depression, and then grew to human rights more generally. While at Georgetown University in the early 1990s, he learned that many people with disabilities were still living in shameful conditions in institutions.

“Segregation is by itself a violation of human rights,” Rosenthal said in a telephone interview. This was unfortunately not the prevailing public policy when he first began his pioneering work, but one that has grown into acceptance, both in the United States and internationally.

The 1999 landmark United States Supreme Court Olmstead decision requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to insure they receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the their needs.

On the international front, Rosenthal’s work has helped create a new United Nations Disability Convention ratified by 130 countries. This convention details the rights of persons with disabilities and creates standards for implementation. It calls on all nations to recognize “that all persons are equal before the law, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee equal legal protection.”

“Throughout his career, Eric has taken action to bring an end to one of the greatest human rights tragedies taking place in the world today: the abuse of millions of children and adults with disabilities in closed orphanages and state institutions,” wrote Norman Rosenberg, former executive director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, as well as  former director of the New Israel Fund and Rosenthal’s nominator for the Charles Bronfman Prize.

“The impact of Eric’s work is real and tangible, and has created a new field of international human rights advocacy for a population that had been entirely overlooked.  Eric’s exposés and the international media coverage they have garnered have forced countries to undertake drastic reforms.”

Rosenthal hopes his selection as the 2012 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize will increase public awareness, and that more will be done to end institutionalization and segregation of people with disabilities. He hopes that the Jewish community will help lead the charge.

“As Jews one generation from a Holocaust, we should understand why we must not allow any group of people or any person to be excluded or be dehumanized or be put away and allowed to die,” he said. “The promise I made my grandmother to remember is very much core to the work that I do.  We must not only remember the six million who perished in the Holocaust, we must also act to protect the 10 million children left behind in orphanages and other custodial institutions.”