Millions of people worldwide are deprived of their liberty because they have a disability, and this must stop now, says a UN human rights expert.

“People with disabilities are overrepresented in prisons, involuntarily hospitalised in mental health facilities, placed in institutions, interned in forensic psychiatric wards, forced to undergo treatment in ‘prayer camps’ and subjected to home confinement,” says UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities Catalina Devandas.

“Deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability is a human rights violation on a massive global scale. It is not a ‘necessary evil’, but a consequence of the failure of States to ensure their obligations towards people with disabilities,” the expert said, presenting a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Often without access to justice to challenge their detention, people with disabilities in these settings become extremely vulnerable to sexual and physical violence, sterilisation, human trafficking, involuntary treatment and other forms of abuse, ill treatment and torture.

Children with disabilities are at higher risk of being confined in institutions, segregated from their families and communities. They are routinely locked up, forced to take medication and often exposed to violence, abuse and neglect.

“In many countries, health and social care professionals encourage parents to place their children with disabilities in institutions under the wrong assumption that they will receive better care than at home, but the detrimental effects of institutionalisation on their development, even when placed in small residential homes or ‘family-like’ institutions, is widely documented,” the expert said.

“Without legal avenues to challenge their situation, people with disabilities become invisible and forgotten by the wider community. In addition, because of the mistaken belief that those practices are well intentioned and beneficial, their situation and well-being is hardly monitored by national preventive mechanisms against torture or national human rights institutions.”

Devandas called for States to take action including legal reform to repeal all legislation allowing deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability. She also said admissions to institutions must be stopped, and steps taken to deinstitutionalise people with disabilities currently being held in them, including in psychiatric settings. Coercion in mental health services, home confinement and shackling must be stopped without delay.

“States must invest instead in community-based responses and support; provide access to justice, reparation and redress to those arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; provide people with disabilities with inclusive and accessible services in the community for education, health care, employment and housing,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur also reported back on her visit to France in October 2017.