Eric Rosenthal

Ashoka Fellow
United States,
Fellow Since 2008


This profile was prepared when Eric Rosenthal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
The New Idea
Eric has changed how the international human rights movement views the treatment of people with mental disabilities—including intellectual, developmental, and psychological disabilities. Disability had traditionally been seen as a health or social welfare issue. Throughout the world, people with mental disabilities and mental illnesses have been subject to forced treatment to be “cured” or were detained in psychiatric institutions to give them “asylum” from society—despite the fact that these individuals may have chosen to be part of society. Over the past three decades, people with mental disabilities have proven that, with some support, they can live in the community. Yet these advances were largely overlooked by the international human rights community. Following his groundbreaking study in 1993, Eric introduced the application of international human rights principles to the institutionalization of people with mental disabilities and argued for a right to community integration under international law. Eric founded Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) to advocate for the international recognition and enforcement of the basic human rights of people with mental disabilities. By exposing human rights violations on a large-scale, and creating political accountability through international shame, Eric and his colleagues at MDRI have introduced a real cost to countries for their inhumane treatment and torture of this population. These efforts have now been vindicated in the language of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has recognized that proper treatment and community integration of people with disabilities should not vary by country. These are now rights articulated in universal law.

Through the international human rights framework, Eric links the improvement of mental health services with broader questions of social justice and nondiscrimination relating to the full spectrum of rights set out in international instruments. From a human rights perspective, people are entitled to live and receive care in their communities not because it is more efficient, but because all human beings develop their identities within social contexts, and have rights to work, study, and be with family and friends. People with mental disabilities are often denied the right to work outside the home, marry, or have children. Eric is calling not only for care to be provided within the community, but also for the planning and decision-making powers to be transferred to individuals with disabilities themselves. Ex-patients of psychiatric institutions, people with mental disabilities, and their family members can and should become integrally involved in the policymaking and programming decisions to achieve full participation in society and the full exercise of their inherent human rights.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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