Meryl Streep Leads by Example on Dignity for People with Disabilities

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Director, Disability Rights

It was one of Meryl Streep’s most poignant monologues. But she wasn’t acting.

As she accepted her lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes on Sunday, Streep used that platform to speak out against mocking and bullying people with disabilities, referring to a controversial moment during a Donald Trump campaign rally when he spoke about a New York Times reporter.

Whether or not you believe that Trump was mocking the reporter’s disability, her point was clear: people in positions of power and influence have the responsibility to model empathy and respect.

I’ve seen how leaders treat people with disabilities with disrespect, as less than human. And how this essentially normalizes the behavior.

My “Meryl moment” – when that hook sank into my heart – was in Ghana, the day I met with the “prophet”. He was the head of a spiritual healing camp, and claimed that he could cure people with disabilities or illness through prayer, fasting and sometimes even shackling.

He proudly showed me to the base of an enormous tree, where there stood a small girl, 5 years old, her skinny, bruised leg weighted down by a heavy, metal chain lying on the ground near her ankle.  

This little girl had been chained to the tree for three days, with no food, no water. She slept there, bathed there, defecated there. Why? Because she was thought to have a disability. She was one of hundreds if not thousands of people with real or perceived mental health conditions living in such conditions in Ghana.

That “prophet” had the power to prohibit such abuses and to lead by example, treating people with disabilities with dignity and respect. Instead, he perpetuated the idea that people with mental health conditions are aggressive and dangerous and should be tied up like animals. A practice that is widespread in far too many countries that I’ve visited.

We need to tackle the stigma and abuse against people with disabilities. And our political and religious leaders need to be at the forefront of this conversation. It’s good to see Hollywood playing its role too.

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