With great sadness we share the news that Medi Ssengooba, a dear friend, partner, and colleague at Human Rights Watch, passed away last week after a short illness.
Medi was a strong advocate, a sharp lawyer, and a kind and gentle man who shattered the notion that disability meant inability. He joined Human Rights Watch as the 2011-2012 Finburg Fellow and led a team investigating and writing a seminal report, “Like A Death Sentence,” on shackling and other abuses against people with psychosocial disabilities in Ghana. During our research mission together to Ghana, Medi and his wheelchair had to be carried over the rocky terrain to reach the gates of the prayer camp where people were held in chains, but he was determined to get in and document their stories. The 2012 report and related video, featuring Medi, prompted Ghanaian officials to adopt many of its recommendations.
Medi went on to work for the Disability Rights Fund, managing their grants to Ghana, so we continued to work together to push for change. In a meeting with Medi in April 2017, the chief executive of Ghana’s Mental Health Authority, Dr. Akwasi Osei, agreed to ban shackling and to release people in chains from key prayer camps that we had identified, a promise fulfilled later that year.
He also changed the environment closer to home, persuading Human Rights Watch to install remote-controlled doors more usable to someone in a wheelchair, and advised us on how to renovate our New York office to make it more accessible. Life in New York City can be particularly challenging when you’re in a wheelchair, but Medi faced it all with unshakable good humor.
Medi persevered throughout his life. He was one of the first people with disabilities to graduate from Makerere Law School in Uganda and went on to get his LLM from American University in Washington, DC, with a fellowship from the Ford Foundation. He also co-founded the legal aid organization, Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities (LAPD), in Uganda.
Medi touched many colleagues with his optimism, warmth and kindness.
Our thoughts go out to Medi’s family, the disability community (particularly in his native Uganda), and the many who had the privilege of calling him a friend.