(Brasilia) – The Brazilian government, in its upcoming plan for people with disabilities, should set out concrete plans for deinstitutionalization, Human Rights Watch said today. The plan, to be released in October 2023, is a timely opportunity to create a system that would enable people with disabilities to live independently in the community.
Thousands of people with disabilities in Brazil live in institutions or inclusive residences – small group homes for up to 10 people with disabilities – under prison-like conditions, new research by Human Rights Watch confirms. The Brazilian federal government’s second disability policy plan, Viver sem Limites II (“Living Without Limits II”), does not currently address their situation, according to interviews with officials in charge of implementing the plan, despite its emphasis on human dignity, ending discrimination, and confronting the barriers to full citizen participation.
“In Brazil, many people with disabilities are forced to live in institutions because the government has failed to provide adequate support for community living,” said Carlos Ríos-Espinosa, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Now that Brazil is reintroducing its plan for the rights of people with disabilities, it has a critical opportunity to address the harm of being warehoused in institutions and institution-like facilities.”
One initiative that has been underway in Brazil is the inclusive residences program for people with disabilities who have moved out of large institutions. Although inclusive residences are intended to provide better individualized support than large institutions because they are supposed to admit no more than 10 people, they still deny people with disabilities their rights to legal capacity, to live independently, and to make decisions for themselves, Human Rights Watch said.
From September 4 through 8, Human Rights Watch revisited three institutions in Brasilia and São Paulo whose living conditions it had documented in a May 2018 report, as well as a fourth it had not previously visited. A staff member at one of the institutions visited said that it had started functioning as an “inclusive residence,” though it still has 55 residents.
None of the institutions visited, including the one converted to an inclusive residence, provide people with disabilities with adequate living options to take meaningful control over their lives. Staff at these institutions still determined their schedules for waking up, eating, sleeping, and taking outings, if any.
At an institution in Brasilia, Human Rights Watch interviewed a woman, with staff permission, who had been previously interviewed in 2016. She gave Human Rights Watch her consent to record the interview. But when researchers began to record, a staff member stopped them saying: “She does not have autonomy to decide for herself. You need a court order to give you permission to make a recorded interview.”
When Human Rights Watch interviewed the woman in 2016, she had said the institution is “like a prison.” From the outset of the pandemic in March 2020 until June 2023, the residence stopped all visits for their residents.
Human Rights Watch also revisited an institution in São Paulo where 11 people with disabilities live. The manager said that before the pandemic, these residents seldom left, and had only five formal outings a year. She said that during the pandemic period, residents were only allowed to leave for medical appointments.
On September 5 and 6, Human Rights Watch met with public authorities responsible for implementing the new plan, who said the federal government plans to build 200 more inclusive residences. Instead, the government should establish a concrete and time-bound plan for deinstitutionalization, shifting directly to community-based support for people with disabilities, and ensuring that all investment is directed to this end, Human Rights Watch said. The Brazilian federal government should also review the inclusive residence program to ensure that such residences facilitate independent living, rather than serve as substitutes for institutions.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which monitors the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, recommended in 2015 that the Brazilian government should create more community alternatives for people with disabilities to exercise the right to live independently. Community-based alternatives include diverse services like personal assistants, accessible and affordable housing, and supported decision making, among others.
Many other countries are seeking community-based alternatives. For example, Kazakhstan and Moldova have piloted independent living programs that may serve as models for such programs. The Brazilian government should also establish a working group, in close consultation with organizations of people with disabilities, to develop policies that support alternatives for independent living.
“When Brazil’s president releases the Viver sem Limites II, ‘Living without Limits,’ he should pledge to progressively end institutionalization and the many limitations it brings,” Ríos-Espinosa said. “Otherwise, the title of Brazil’s disability rights plan is another empty promise.”