4 April 2014

Democracy? Not for people with mental disabilities

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This Sunday, over 55,000 Hungarian citizens living in Hungary will not be allowed to choose their leaders at the national elections. They’re not criminals, they’re not migrants and they’re not children. It is like not counting the votes of the entire population of Szombathely.

You can’t see many of these 55,000 people because many are locked up, out of sight. They are people labelled with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems. They have been put under guardianship, for their own good, by the power of a doctor and a judge.

Photo credit: euronews.comPhoto credit: euronews.com

Hungary has a disproportionately high number of Nobel prize winners. So it’s surprising that it is also the European champion in guardianship. Here, 600 per 100,000 of the population are under guardianship. In the Czech Republic – a similar size and a similar recent history – the figure is half that at 320.

Guardianship should be abolished. It arbitrarily removes the rights from a person to author their own lives. A person under guardianship is stripped of the right to decide where and with whom to live, to decide on whom to marry, where to work, to consent or reject medical interventions. And that emblem of citizenship – the right to vote – is removed too.

The current government has made a pig’s ear of guardianship law reform. In the current version of the Fundamental Law, the rule is that in a case about guardianship a judge can decide whether or not to remove the person’s right to vote. This system violates human rights, as the United Nations expert committee on disability ruled in a case brought against Hungary last year. (The government has made zero efforts to comply with this ruling).

With supports and access, everyone can exercise their right to vote. If Hungary wants to filter out “inappropriate” votes it needs to define what these sort of votes are. It then needs to create a test which every potential voter would have to pass before they are allowed to vote. This system would have to be applied to everyone so as not to discriminate against people with disabilities. For understandable reasons, no country has such a system, because it undercuts the fundamental and simple notion of one-person one-vote.

55,000 people may not be enough to sway the election one way or the other. Perhaps people with disability would vote differently to the general population. Perhaps they wouldn’t. But these questions miss the point. If we live in a society which strips a person with disability from participating in our democratic processes, we can hardly call the society a democracy.

Hungary’s new government must fix this democratic deficit by amending the Constitution to abolish all legal restrictions to participate in political and public life.


Oliver Lewis

Executive Director – Mental Disability Advocacy Center

Twitter: @olewis75 @mdacintl