“I want to be a citizen just like any other,” Maria Alejandra Villanueva, a young Peruvian woman with Down Syndrome, told my Human Rights Watch colleagues seven years ago.

Thanks to groundbreaking legal reforms adopted this month in Peru, people with disabilities, like Maria Alejandra, are significantly closer to realizing that dream of becoming full citizens.

Prejudice and stigma are easily recognized as major contributors to discrimination against and exclusion of people with disabilities, especially for people who have intellectual or learning disabilities. And often, the law is also to blame.

In my work as a disability rights advocate I still encounter laws that describe people with disabilities as incapable or worse: "imbeciles," "idiots," or "mentally retarded." The harm from many laws goes even further by preventing many people with certain types of disabilities from making essential, personal decisions – like getting married, voting in an election, renting an apartment or opening a bank account. Many states instead appoint a guardian to make all such decisions for a person with a disability.

Peru has now taken a bold step to end this legal exclusion of people with disabilities. After eight years of debates involving legislators, disabled people’s organizations, the ombudsman, human rights experts and independent groups, President Martin Vizcarra signed into law a comprehensive bill that unequivocally recognizes every individual, regardless of disability or supposed “mental capacity” as equal and holding the same rights as every other person. Under the new law, signed this month, every individual has equal and full legal capacity, or the right to make decisions for themselves.  

Peru’s reforms also include a system of support for people with disabilities in making important decisions, if they would like such assistance. This can be help in understanding legal decisions and their consequences. Importantly, support in decision-making does not mean legal representation, or that someone else gets to make their decisions. The person requesting support defines the scope, duration and purpose that assistance will have.

In exceptional cases, after real, considerable and pertinent efforts have been made, it is not possible to determine the person’s will, a judge can appoint someone close to the individual who will provide support based on the best possible understanding of that person's will and preferences. In that role, the supporter can draw on things like their understanding of an individual’s history and past decisions. There are safeguards in place to prevent abuse, coercion or other inappropriate influence. Significantly, the reform moves away entirely from infantilizing and patronizing perspectives that consider people with disabilities as people who must always be cared for and sheltered. It’s an example of support in decision-making that also aims to allow people the freedom to make mistakes and experience risk.

Peru’s legal capacity reform honors individual autonomy and the dignity of all people with disabilities equally. People like Maria Alejandra, who wanted the same rights as everyone else – to vote, to have a job, to her inheritance – now have those rights. Millions like her are waiting for their countries in Latin America and around the world to follow suit. If Peru can do it, so can Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and others.