Judith Klein, Open Society Foundations

TITLE: Director, Mental Health Initiative

FUNDING AREAS: Disability rights in Central and Eastern Europe

CONTACT: klein.judith@opensocietyfoundations.org, 212-548-0600

IP TAKE: A long-time advocate for disability rights, Klein leads the charge of funding projects to help people with disabilities in Central and Eastern Europe live with dignity in their own communities instead of in institutions. 

PROFILE: When children have disabilities, there are often plenty of resources available to them in the United States, in no small part because they're guaranteed a "free appropriate public education" under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. At a U.S. school, kids with special needs have teams of people— teachers, speech pathologists, psychologists, social workers, friends, even Girl Scout leaders or choir directors—designated to aid their progress and well-being. Such is not the case in central and eastern Europe.

It's inspiring to see philanthropic organizations, such as the Open Society Foundations, take up the kind of disability advocacy that the public sector doesn't seem to have space for. At the helm of the Open Society Foundations' disability rights work is Judith Klein, director of the organization's Mental Health Initiative since 2000, an employee within their program since 1995, and a disability advocate extraordinaire.

Unfortunately for anyone with disabilities living in the United States, Open Society's Mental Health Initiative is entirely focused on disability rights advocacy in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But geography aside, the importance of autonomy for adults with disabilities is universal, and Klein and her team are doing good work to advance the cause of disability rights globally.

The Mental Health Initiative's primary focus is "to ensure that people with mental disabilities are able to live as equal citizens in the community and to actively participate in society with full respect for their human rights." More specifically, "The initiative focuses on ending the unjustified and inappropriate institutionalization of people with mental disabilities throughout the region by advocating for the closure of institutions and the development of community-based alternatives."

Before joining the Open Society Foundations, Klein, a lawyer, worked to promote disability rights in the U.S. Specifically, she represented people with disabilities in guardianship and detention hearings. So Klein is well-aware that, within the U.S., there's some debate about whether a purported switch to "community-based alternatives" from institutions may in fact be a politically palatable way to defund support programs for people with disabilities altogether. But even in the U.S., people with disabilities are imprisoned against their will, as are people with disabilities in more institution-reliant Eastern Europe. And assuming positive "community-based alternatives" actually exist, it's hard to argue that people wouldn't be better off in settings where they can live with dignity, freedom, and independence.

As Klein eloquently puts it:

"I have two theories for why the segregation of people with mental disabilities, which is a very severe human rights violation in itself, is allowed to continue. One theory is that society as a whole fails to make the connection between the people incarcerated in institutions and what we expect for ourselves, our family, friends and fellow citizens. This is because... the residents of these institutions are systematically dehumanized. They are dehumanized by government practices, by staff in the institutions who have no time to treat them as individuals, and by the general public who prefer not to think about this issue. I think of this as the 'us and them' mentality. People with mental disabilities are regarded as 'less than human,' an inferior form of being. Couple this with the widespread and ingrained stigma and prejudice against them. The result: large, remote institutions where people spend their lives, dying of abuse and neglect, marginalized and forgotten. The bitter irony of this theory is that similar treatment of animals would be an immediate public scandal. This cannot be right."

The Open Society Foundations were founded by renowned financier and philanthropist George Soros. The foundations boast assets in the billions and make annual grants totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. The organization's mission: "to build vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people."

Groups interested in monetary support from Open Society can fall into a wide range of program areas and can be located in just about any region of the world (including the United States). As of the date of this post, Open Society is soliciting funding proposals in several dozen areas. They include: promoting black male achievement in the United States; improving disability rights in Central and Eastern Europe (of course); obtaining protection from genetic monitoring; and advancing human rights in Latin America.

For more information about how to apply for funding, Open Society has information for prospective grantees here.