How people with psychosocial disabilities can claim their rights

Our latest lunchtime speaker session from Transforming Communities for Inclusion highlighted the fight for the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities.

Transforming Communities for Inclusion (TCI) is a global organisation of people with psychosocial disabilities, which includes people with intersectional neurodiverse identities as well as users and survivors of psychiatry.

I was really excited about the talk because I felt my knowledge about psychosocial disabilities was limited, so it would be a fantastic opportunity to expand my horizons. Before the session, I particularly wanted to develop a better understanding of the term ‘psychosocial disabilities’ and explore whether there are any links to neurodiversity or other broader areas of disability.

What is a psychosocial disability?

On TCI’s website, I read that “the identity of persons with psychosocial disabilities has been derived from the description of disability included in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and is inclusive of persons who identify as users and survivors of psychiatry, ‘mad’ persons and persons with intersectional and neurodiverse identities”.

Through further research, I learned that The Disability Support Guide defines a psychosocial disability as a “psychological and social condition that may arise from a severe mental health issue”, which can affect people in many different ways. For example, someone may struggle to concentrate or cope with stress, or they might find it difficult to be in certain environments. A psychosocial disability can affect a person’s ability to engage with others, perform tasks and take part in society.

Why we need inclusion for people with psychosocial disabilities

Several points raised by the TCI team during their presentation really struck a chord with me, particularly around how society excludes people with disabilities.

Bhargavi Davar, TCI’s executive director, explained that because people with psychosocial disabilities are deemed to be of unsound mind in many countries (including the Commonwealth), they’re not allowed voting rights and can’t stand for elections or hold public office. As a result, some people may actively choose to avoid the psychiatric system because they don’t want to be labelled or face the stigma associated with psychosocial disabilities, which can cause further emotional distress and trauma. As a survivor of psychiatry, Bhargavi shared her own experience, summing up her early childhood and how seeing her mother repeatedly incarcerated in violent ways led her to struggle with trauma and depression.

In Bali, TCI organised discussions with 75 members from 21 countries to examine the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities and whether they’re covered by legislation and policy. The rights should be aligned with the UNCRPD and support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by enabling participation in employment, social protection schemes, housing and family life. For the most part, the members found that the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities weren’t represented in international processes, which led to the adoption of the Bali Declaration.

Three routes to inclusion: the challenges

Bhargavi explained that there are three ways that people with psychosocial disabilities can enter the discourse around inclusion and human rights. She described the first route as the “mental health door” and explained that this door is often closed after diagnosis and treatment: “You don’t have anything further to do because you’ve got your pills, so you’ve been given treatment. You lose your capacity and are no longer a person.”

In many countries, psychosocial disabilities are still seen from a medicalised perspective. People receive treatment for their mental health condition, but stigma remains persistent and there are no provisions to support their full and meaningful integration into society. In some cases, people are even deprived of their legal capacity and locked in institutions where they’re prevented from making any decisions for themselves, an action explicitly prohibited by the UNCRPD.

The second route Bhargavi described is the “SDGs and development door”, which is “a very large door, with many more doors to open and engage with”, which is very confusing to navigate. “So, you step back and are pushed back through the mental health door.” This speaks to all the commitments made by states and governments through international treaties and processes, and the fact that, despite many promises, real progress around the inclusion of people with psychosocial disabilities through these mechanisms has so far been very slow.

The third route is the “human rights door”, which Bhargavi described as the best place to be, where the whole person and their rights can be considered. This is what we’re striving towards, demanding full and equal recognition before the law for people with psychosocial disabilities, in line with the UNCRPD. However, it can be a very long, confusing and arduous process to get there.

What next?

TCI was founded to put people with psychosocial disabilities at the centre of cross-disability movements at all levels. It aims to realise the rights of people with such disabilities and help them reclaim their dignity, autonomy and independence. Much of TCI’s work focuses on access to justice issues. TCI prioritises the removal of legal barriers and is working hard so that its members can “participate fully in political participation and other areas of public life, and move forward on inclusion”.

At Sightsavers, we advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, but we recognise that some groups are more marginalised than others – including people with psychosocial disabilities. That’s why Sightsavers is investing in initiatives like Ghana Participation Programme to tackle stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities.

But there’s still more work to do – and that’s why we’re keen to work with TCI and other organisations to advance the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities, making sure that no one is left behind.

Members of Transforming Communities for Inclusion pose for a group photo.
TCI members at a community inclusion workshop in Kathmandu.


Sightsavers logoKate Bennell is the technical adviser for disability inclusion and accessibility at Sightsavers UK. Severely sight impaired herself, she coordinates the Disability Inclusion Working Group and champions accessibility. LinkedIn

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