Reading Time: 4 minutesInterview with Carlos Ríos Espinosa, Senior Researcher and Advocate, Disability Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, about how technology is tackling disabilities for an equitable society.
Carlos is a top expert on international disability rights, serving on the CRPD Committee (UN treaty body) from 2011 to 2014, including as Vice-Chair for two years. In this role, he was very involved in the Committee’s jurisprudence on legal capacity, torture, right to liberty and access to justice. Carlos is a lawyer and expert on criminal justice and has been involved in criminal procedure reform in Mexico since 2004. In 2013, the Mexican Senate appointed him as National Commissioner for Victims, where he oversaw the activities of the special committees against torture and kidnapping. Since 2015, he has worked with the Human Rights Clinic of Mexico’s National University to prosecute human rights abuses against people with disabilities. He has also served as a Mexico City Human Rights Commission board member.
At Human Rights Watch, you investigate and report on abuses happening worldwide, and you're a top researcher that focuses on abuses against people with disabilities. What would you say is the state of these matters in the, let's say, European societies and American societies right now?
I would say that there is a big agenda for including people with disabilities worldwide. There are numerous concerns because, as you know, more than 50 million people in the world live with a disability, and 80% of them live in the Global South. They do not have access to basic goods and services; we do not have inclusive societies, accessible societies. So many people in the Global South still, for example, lack access to transport. And that, of course, generates exclusion in the realms of education and employment. And of course, there is a lot of poverty, so people with disabilities are abandoned and neglected.
There is a big agenda for most countries in the Global North. Although poverty is not as dire as in the Global South, you can still find large percentages of people with disabilities living in poverty. There are not adequate measures to portray this phenomenon accurately. So that is the big issue.
Many countries in the Global South have not yet recognised legal capacity for people with disabilities. Disability is an umbrella concept; it includes people with physical sensitive, cognitive or mental health conditions. Many of these persons do not have legal capacity, so they are not recognised. For example, they cannot marry, and they cannot vote. They cannot participate fully in society in general.
Do we understand the problem enough, or do we lack information regarding disabilities?
I would say that we should not divide the world between those who have disabilities and those who don't have disabilities. I would frame the question differently because disability is part of the human condition; anyone can have a disability, and most people in the course of their lives have one disability. We need to think about inclusion globally; as you know, disability is an evolving concept. I would say that so-called people without disabilities need to include people with specific disabilities and older people from diverse conditions. We need to build societies to have everyone. That would be the main issue that we need to understand.
According to your research, how do technologies connect with inequalities related to disability? Are they beneficial, or are they making this gap bigger?
New technologies have a huge potential for people with disabilities; with the digital world, everything has become more accessible for some people, but there is still a big divide or a big gap for others. For instance, in real mobile employment, we have these new technologies, for example, to recruit people. But of course, we need to ensure that technology does not discriminate against people with disabilities in itself, because when you have, say, a digital interview where a person has been interviewed for a job, sometimes the software disregards people because of their facial expression. And that is automatic. So many people might have facial paralysis, for example, or Down syndrome, or whose face is different from the others. They shouldn't be disregarded or discarded just because of being different. That is a concrete example. We need to be very conscious about the need to include people with disabilities and new technologies.
What initiatives or projects have you heard about lately that make you feel hopeful for the future?
I found a perfect practice in Toronto, Canada. It is a program that provides support for people with mental health conditions who might be experiencing acute emotional distress or crisis. There is an outcry in North American societies in the US and Canada about people dying from police violence and abuse. When someone is in distress, they call 911 or the police, the police come, and they do not know how to handle a mental health crisis. So instead of sending law enforcement, you should send peers or community-based services and make them available for people experiencing those kinds of situations. So in Toronto, Canada, I found an excellent practice called The Crisis Centre. This service provides immediate relief and in-person communication with people experiencing this providing, not law enforcement or coercive practices, but rather a more empathic approach, a warm approach to these situations.
How can we make a future inclusive for everybody?
Well, I would say that we need to focus on addressing the issue of poverty, disability and inequalities. Many international organizations like the World Bank or the International Monitoring Fund use incorrect property indicators that are false and should adequately portray disabilities. Many people with disabilities, for example, don't have access even to minimum technical devices like wheelchairs. Many people don't have a good wheelchair to go about, hearing AIDS or personal support to live independently. That is a fundamental right for everyone, the right to live independently and decide where, how and with whom to live. It would be essential to have new policies that target poverty and include people with disabilities in the development to have a good standard of living for them as well.