When Eric Rosenthal, 49, won this year’s Charles Bronfman Prize, which recognizes the work of Jewish humanitarians under 50, he was stupefied, and not just because it came with a $100,000 stipend.
“I never really brought my personal and professional life into such close connection,” he told the Forward in July. “The idea that this would be an issue that would speak specifically to the Jewish people… never really occurred to me.”
Rosenthal and the group he founded in 1993, Disability Rights International, have turned the humane treatment of disabled individuals into an international human rights issue. In the manner of Amnesty International, the organization conducts investigations and issues reports documenting the mistreatment of the mentally disabled around the world, country by country. In 2007, for example, DRI’s report on Serbia noted the contagious diseases and lack of medical care, and featured photos of emaciated disabled children and adults tied to beds. DRI denounced this as “tantamount to torture.” Serbia’s prime minister called the report “malicious.” But his government eventually promised reforms.
Rosenthal, whose father worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, grew up in several countries in Africa. But his idea for DRI came on a 1992 trip to Mexico while planning a career as a mental health professional. During a visit to a local psychiatric facility, Rosenthal saw a barbed wire fence penning in hundreds of naked patients — mostly disabled children — sitting covered in their own feces, occasionally fighting for food. His plans for an organization to address such conditions worldwide were born then and there.