By Max Zidel
As I write my final blog post, I watch through the big glass windows at Budapest International Airport as the various planes pull out of their gates, accelerate and disappear into the sky. In an hour or so that will be me, boarding an EasyJet flight for Berlin and eventually Italy, where I will spend a couple of weeks with friends before returning to Canada.
As I sit and enjoy my espresso (one of my favourite pastimes), I am conscious of the Hungarian words that hang above me – “felvonók” for lifts, “mosdók” for washrooms – which remind me of the unique culture and kind people that I leave behind. I think about all the amazing nights I spent with friends by the Danube or dancing on Margit Island (it’s a little island-park between Buda and Pest); I think about all the amazing people that I met – through work, family friends or living arrangements.
Of course, while I have many great stories to share about my short three months in Budapest, I have decided in my final blog post to make some concluding remarks about my experience here as a human rights intern, and some of the key lessons I have learned about law, social justice and even myself.
1. Personal experiences are crucial, but there is a danger in generalizing. Having grown up with a sister with severe intellectual disabilities, I have had many first-hand encounters with the ways in which law and mental disability interact, as well as with trying to live up to the needs and aspirations of someone who was often incapable of verbalizing her thoughts and feelings. This kind of personal connection and experience was essential to my work at MDAC, but I also learned how important it is to keep it in perspective. My sister’s story is really only one among many, and what she may have wanted out of law or life is not necessarily what other individuals with mental disability may want. And this works both ways. For example, while the CRPD’s General comment on Article 12 rightly callsfor an end to guardianship and a move toward supported decision making, I fear that in my sister’s case this would be a step in the wrong direction. Incapable of understanding notions like ‘money’ or performing basic tasks like getting dressed or preparing a meal, my sister’s dignity and autonomy were greatly enhanced by some of the substitute decision making carried out by my parents. But while this may be true for my sister, I have no doubt that it is probably not true for the vast majority of individuals with mental disability.
2. Legal human rights work doesn’t always feel like human rights work. Legal work can be powerful and impactful, but it can also be highly removed and impersonal. Though I very much enjoyed the various research tasks I was assigned to and am really pleased with the amount of knowledge I acquired in the process, I am aware of how often I simply disconnected from the real world while sitting behind my desk. Just as in law school, I often found myself in a universe of legal jargon – where peoples’ stories were simply fact summaries and fundamental rights a means to some strategic objective or outcome. This is not to say my desk-work was not important – it was and I do believe that it will eventually lead to some real change and impact at a very personal level for some of our beneficiaries. I just thought it important to point out that I sometimes felt like that wasn’t the case, and that maybe there is a better balance that can be struck between engagement and legal work.
3. It is hard to go somewhere when you don’t know where you are going. Over the past few months, I learned that it is much easier to denounce something that’s wrong or unjust than it is to articulate a promising alternative. If guardianship is abusive, invasive and belittling, then what do we propose instead? If institutions are broken and harmful, then what is a better vision based around community care? These are the challenges we faced every single day at MDAC. And rightfully so, because it’s not enough to tell judges and governments that the current ways aren’t working if we don’t have any better ideas. And we don’t just need ideas, but also ones that are affordable and implementable. This is no easy task, and indeed it often felt like we were driving into the abyss without any maps to lead the way. Human rights, it seems, is not necessarily about “immediately realizable” rights, but more so about courage and experimentation, and an acknowledgement that the world we live is and will continue to be – imperfect.
All in all, I am really glad I got the chance to work at MDAC and participate in this amazing internship program. I really look forward to reflecting on all of these issues in greater depth as I begin the process of writing my term paper this fall!