This week I attended the screening of my colleague Jody Santos’s documentary for the PBS Visionaries series, entitled No One Left Behind. The film reveals the work of the organization Disability Rights International (DRI), and their ongoing attempts to advocate for the rights of disabled people around the world. What the film revealed was horrific. In the Republic of Georgia, in Guatemala, in Mexico, institutions full of severely disabled adults and children lie in cage-like cribs, or lie on the floor naked, or hunch up against a wall in a ball. They suffer from all sorts of things, not the least of which is extreme boredom. The most horrifying instances of what amounts to torture were at an institution in Mexico, where children with cerebral palsy are bound with gauze, their legs and arms immobilized, many of them strapped to contraptions that hold them in a standing position. These children regularly die from lack of circulation to their limbs.
At the Q and A after the screening, Jody and two representatives from DRI expanded on the abuses we had just witnessed. They explained that they had had no trouble getting access to these institutions in their filming; the workers there have no sense that what they are doing is wrong. Preventable medical issues such as hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, are not treated, and toddlers with enormous, outsize heads lie in their cribs in excruciating pain. I had to look away from the screen during this portion of the film. This was in Georgia, and progress was shown for new babies coming into the institution, who are receiving the care they need and having the water drained from their skulls.
Millions more children and adults need saving, and DRI operates on a variety of fronts to advocate for them, mostly crafting and then working to enforce international law asserting the rights of disabled people. I did not know that orphanages and other institutions mostly perpetuate the neglect and lack of medical treatment for these people. Eric Rosenthal, the founder of DRI, challenged us, in the Q and A, to tell five or more people what we had learned, and to make sure we knew where our charity dollars were going—if they go to orphanages, find somewhere else to contribute our money.
I felt a shift in myself while watching these horrors. I teach the history of American slavery in my courses in African American literature, and the same week had screened a film in which the instruments of torture endured by slaves were shown—metal bits for the mouth, collars with spikes, metal masks slaves were forced to wear while cutting cane. These were illustrations, with one photograph of an old man wearing a collar with four long spikes, three or four feet long with hooked ends, protruding at regular intervals. No One Left Behind showed me abuses as horrible or worse that are going on right now. I am not sure what I can do about this, as an individual, other than share my knowledge. Eric Rosenthal calls the treatment of the disabled the most neglected human rights issue of our time.
I pass this information on to you.