For eight University of Washington undergraduates, the first week of June this year meant more than the end of the academic year or finishing final exams. It meant a chance to defend the human rights of Sergio, a child in Peru who became severely disabled at birth due to insufficient obstetric care for his mother, Eulogia.
The students, Fellows in the UW Disability Inclusive Development Initiative, or DIDI, had spent much of winter and spring quarters researching the facts of the case brought by Eulogia to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Eulogia’s case focused on the violence she had suffered at Sergio’s birth but did not raise the rights of Sergio as a child with a disability.
Students spent weeks searching for data on children with disabilities in Peru, and drafted memos on human rights and non-discrimination laws in Peru and within the Inter-American and international human rights systems. After working through many drafts of an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief that will be filed when the case reaches the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, located in Costa Rica as part of the D.C.-based Organization of American States, later this year, the students had their arguments ready.
Researching for meaningful change
In a moot court via Zoom on June 6, at 8:30 a.m. in Seattle and 10:30 a.m. in Lima, Peru, the Fellows presented oral arguments on Sergio’s behalf to an esteemed panel of three human rights experts, including Adrián Lengua, Attorney in the Secretariat of Petitions and Cases at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Piero Vásquez, Legal Consultant at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Alejandra Gonza, Affiliate Instructor at UW Law.
Over the course of an hour and half, in pairs of two and with a timed limit of 12 minutes per pair, the students highlighted the ways in which Sergio’s age, disability, class, rural environment, and indigenous ethnicity intersected and led to violations of his rights to health, rehabilitation, and education, among others. The panelists then asked questions, pushing students to support certain arguments with legal research and forcing them to defend their arguments without a script. For all of the students, it was their first time preparing an amicus curiae brief – and presenting their findings in front of an international panel of experts.
“Participating in DIDI was an incredible way to learn about and advocate for disability rights in an international context,” said Jayden Rayl, a rising senior double-majoring in international studies and law, societies and justice, with a minor in French. “In fall quarter I am planning on taking a Disability Studies course in large part because of my experience with DIDI and how much I learned from it.”
“I hope to do similar work regarding not only disability rights but also the rights of children in the future,” said Peyton Knight, a DIDI fellow who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Law, Societies & Justice with minors in disability studies and human rights in 2021. “I felt empowered and realized that with a bit of practice and support from my peers, I am capable of much more than I had initially realized.”
Creating impact across borders
The event was the culmination of students’ sixteen-week long fellowship in the Disability Inclusive Development Initiative, part of the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute Global Research Group program. It was supported in part by Carnegie Corporation of New York, which provides funds for research and related projects that have measurable impact and promote meaningful, transformative change for the public good.
It also showcased a 20-week international collaboration between the UW and La Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, or Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, supported by the Global Innovation Fund, a UW Office of Global Affairs grant to encourage faculty collaborations with colleagues at universities around the world and development of international research and teaching opportunities. Renata Bregaglio and Renato Constantino, both law faculty at Católica and the founders of the university’s Disability Rights Legal Center, worked closely on the project with Stephen Meyers, an associate professor at the Jackson School of International Studies and Law, Societies & Justice, and Megan McCloskey, a doctoral candidate at the School of Law, graduate student lecturer in Law, Societies & Justice, both co-founders of the UW’s Disability Inclusive Development Initiative.
“We are indebted to Renata and Renato not only for their in-depth knowledge of the Inter-American human rights system but also their patience and commitment with our students as they thought through the issues in the case,” said Meyers, who is also the director of the Center for Global Studies and chair of the M.A. in International Studies program.
McCloskey, also a lawyer who developed the idea of the cross-continental partnership to advocate for global disability rights, said the same, adding “Both Renata and Renato were terrific mentors for the students and we all learned so much from them.” McCloskey will be working with Bregaglio and Constantino and another team of UW students on service-learning projects with Peruvian organizations of persons with disabilities this autumn quarter.
To date, 30 UW undergraduates and graduates from the Jackson School of International Studies, Law, Societies & Justice Department and Disabilities Studies Program have participated as UW Disability Inclusive Development Student Fellows. Together, they have produced work now published in major reports by UNFPA and UNESCO and otherwise participated in high impact projects that publicly promote disability human rights and disability inclusion in development.