Interview with Laurie Ahern, President, Disability Rights International (DRI)




1. You have been working in the field of mental health for many years, what is your current taking on how mental illness are mainstreamed in the overall disability sector?

In my experience, it has not been easy for people with psychiatric or “psychosocial” disabilities to organize, advocate and gain acceptance by the wider disability community.  But I think the drafting of the CRPD – which was written by people with disabilities – including those with psychosocial disabilities – has melted some of the barriers that have stood in the way. For instance, DRI helped organize and train a group of formerly institutionalized people in Mexico City, who are now an independent DPO and who monitor and report on human rights conditions in the very abusive institutions they were once locked in themselves. I think the more public they become – they have been featured in many newspaper articles and television – the more accepted they have become by other disability, women’s, human rights groups, the government and the public at large. See a story about them on Unreported World here


2. Can you tell us more about the Empowerment Model of Recovery and the PACE model?

The Empowerment or PACE model of recovery views severe emotional distress – commonly labeled as mental illness - as a state from which you can recover, rather than a chemical imbalance of the brain, of which you have little or no control. Tenets of this model include trusting relationships, self-determination, feeling emotionally safe and having people around you who believe that you can recover. This is especially true with what are considered to be the most severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. It is easy to see why someone who has been through an earthquake such as in Nepal, might be sad, depressed or grief stricken. Or why a soldier coming back from a war would be traumatized. But often the reasons might not always be quite as obvious. But I always assume if someone is having what they used to call a “breakdown,” they are breaking down for a reason. By the way, you can find the PACE manual in many languages on our website  under publications/reports. But it has yet to be translated into Napali !

3. Can you tell us now about your work with Disability Rights International? What is its mission and overall goals?

Disability Rights International (DRI) is an advocacy organization dedicated to the human rights and full participation in society of people with disabilities worldwide. DRI documents human rights abuses, supports the development of disability rights advocacy, promotes international awareness and oversight of the rights of people with disabilities. In many countries DRI advises and provides training to governments, NGOs and DPO’s to help plan strategies to bring about effective rights enforcement and service system reform. We have also launched the Worldwide Campaign to End the Institutionalization of Children. We are trying to educate donors – many who are from the U.S. – about the dangers of orphanages to children. Up to 95% of children in orphanages around the world have living parents and/or extended families. It is poverty and disability that push vulnerable families to put their children into orphanages. We need to support families, not build orphanages.

4. Disability Rights International has been working on the issue of disability and torture. You have been publishing a very important report, Torture Not Treatment. What are the mayor challenges and what is the real progress so far achieved?

I think the most important outcome of our work, connecting disability with torture, is the agreement with DRI by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the UN Committee against Torture (CAT), that the abuses we uncovered and documented – prolonged restraint, isolation and denial of medical care - were a violation of the UN Convention against Torture. And the report you mentioned, Torture not Treatment, documented the use of pain – specifically electric shocks – on children with autism in a residential school in the United States, in attempt to “cure” them of their disability. Those aversive so-called treatments have since been banned.       

5. Disability Rights International made promotion of oversight mechanisms of the CRPD a priority. Are you satisfied with what you achieved so far? What are the existing challenges to shift from legislative rights to effective implementation?

I think in most cases, in order to enforce legislation and protect existing rights, NGOs and DPOs and other civil society actors just have to keep the pressure on governments, using strategic litigation and the media and whatever else will get the governments attention.


6. What are the future plans for Disability Rights International?

DRI will continue to expose human rights abuses against children and adults with disabilities – especially those who are locked away and forgotten in institutions and orphanages. And we hope to be working in Rwanda and Nepal in the near future.


7 Last but not the least. You have been working as journalist for long. How can we enhance the role of media to help changing the people’s perceptions towards disabilities?

When I first came to DRI eleven years ago, I found that our reports were very legally dense. Great for lawyers, but as a journalist, I knew in order to attract the media and the public they had to be more user friendly. We started using more quotes from the people themselves whose rights were being violated. We told more stories and used photos and videos – all of which attracted more media attention. And we worked on developing relationships with the press – individual reporters – letting them know when we had a good story, inviting them with us on investigations or to participate in a workshop and just working on making disability more public.


About Laurie

Ahern is the President of Disability Rights International and is responsible for all of the day-to-day operations of the organization. She also conducts human rights investigations and is the co- author of Torture not Treatment, United States; Torment not Treatment, Serbia; Behind Closed Doors, Turkey; and Hidden Suffering, Romania. For ten years before joining Disability Rights International, Ahern was the co-founder and co-director of the National Empowerment Center, Inc. (NEC), a national, federally funded recovery and technical assistance center for people diagnosed with mental illness and their families.

Ahern was the editor of the award-winning NEC newsletter and co-created the Empowerment Model of Recovery and the PACE model, a non-coercive alternative to Assertive Community Treatment. Her work has been featured in many professional journals, in the media, and has been translated into nine languages. She is the recipient of the National Mental Health Association’s Clifford Beers Award and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law’s Advocacy Award. In addition, she has conducted workshops, given talks and organized conferences for consumers/survivors/users, families and mental health providers to promote recovery.  Ahern is the former vice president of the National Association of Rights, Protection and Advocacy (NARPA) and editor of the NARPA newsletter, The Tenet. Prior to her position at the NEC, she was the managing editor of several newspapers and freelance writer for The Boston Globe and Associated Press and has won national awards for her investigative and editorial writing and reporting.


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