The minister of welfare and social services, Meir Cohen, recently decided to
close down the San Simon institution in Jerusalem for people with physical
disabilities. This is good news, especially for the dozens of people who lived
there under dangerous conditions. But it will take more than closing this one
institution for Israel to show its support for the right of people with
disabilities to be treated as equal citizens.
Throughout the world,
countries are closing institutions for children and adults with disabilities.
Italy has closed all of its mental institutions; the US has drastically reduced
the number of its institutions; and, in Europe too, institutions are
The European Court of Human rights last year declared that the
institutionalization of people with disabilities can constitute cruel and
inhumane treatment in violation of human rights law, and the US Supreme Court
has declared that institutionalization can amount to illegal discrimination in
violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There is now a
worldwide campaign to end the institutionalization of children, mounted by
Disability Rights International.
The trend of closing institutions and
instead developing housing in the community for people with all types of
disabilities is caused by several factors. First, professionals throughout the
world agree that living in a homelike setting is preferable to living in an
Research has found that people with disabilities, including
those with the most severe disabilities, do better in all areas of life when
they live in homes rather than institutions.
Second, people with
disabilities, their families and their supporters have shown that living in the
community is more respectful of rights and dignity than living in institutions
where residents are told when to get up, when to go to sleep, what they will do
each day and with whom they will share a room.
officials and policy makers are realizing that living in the community has
financial advantages over maintaining large and often remote institutions. Yet
Israel has continued its policy of institutionalization. The Israeli government
claims it cannot afford homes in the community for everyone who needs one and
that institutions are more cost effective. But that is not the case, as numerous
studies worldwide have shown.
Even Israel’s own Brookdale Institute found
that small, homelike settings are more cost effective than large institutions.
Why then, despite the overwhelming evidence establishing the social and economic
benefits of community living, does the Israeli government continue to support
institutions? Perhaps it is because of the Israeli impulse to care for children
and adults whom the government decides cannot take care of
But this attitude contradicts the rights of people with
disabilities and deprives them of their dignity and their ability to become part
of Israeli society. The government could and should divert funds from
institutions and support the right of people to live in the community.
September 2012, Israel ratified the UN Convention for Rights of People with
Disabilities (CRPD). This Convention is the most comprehensive international law
on the rights of people with disabilities. It was drafted with input from the
Israeli government and organizations such as Bizchut. The CRPD affirms the right
of all people with disabilities to be treated on an equal basis with others in
all areas of life. It requires Israel and all the other 132 countries that have
ratified it to date to provide support to people with disabilities in homes in
The CRPD recognizes “the equal right of all persons with
disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others” and that
state parties such as Israel, “shall take effective and appropriate measures to
facilitate the full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of this right and
their full inclusion and participation in the community.”
Yet the Israeli
government refuses to create the necessary opportunities for community living
that the new treaty (as well as Israel’s own domestic laws) require. Children
and adults with disabilities are forced to stay in institutions since their
government claims there are no other options.
But there are other
options, and the government knows they exist.
The Israel Unlimited
Project – a partnership of the government of Israel, Ruderman Family Foundation
and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), supports some
excellent community housing programs for people in various neighborhoods
throughout Israel, as does the Health Ministry. Welfare and Social Services
Ministry officials and staff also have visited model housing programs in New
York City and Boston, on a study tour that I helped to arrange in 2010. These
are programs that support people to live in housing like yours and mine, and
they are cost effective, too.
IT IS time for Israel to follow through on
its legal commitment to its citizens.
First, Israel must simply stop the
admission of children and adults to institutions. This could be done tomorrow –
Israel has the funds and the expertise. Second, Israel must begin to invest more
in housing in the community for people with disabilities and to integrate people
with disabilities in existing housing.
There is a serious shortage of
housing in some areas of Israel. But when new housing gets built (and it will),
the government should make sure that at least some of those units are fully
accessible and available for people with disabilities. In terms of existing
housing, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry already offer some apartments
in the community.
They know how to do it; they just need to do more of
Third, the government has to begin to close institutions now or at
least develop and implement a plan for their closure.
Israel claims to
support community living for all people with disabilities “with choices equal to
That is what its ratification of the CRPD means. The right to
live in the community does not guarantee the right to a particular home in a
particular neighborhood, nor does it mean having to work alone.
does mean the right to live in a home and with the necessary support.
is time for the new ministers of health and welfare and social services to act.
During the recent elections, they both promised that “there is a future” (Yesh
Atid). It is time for them to show that this future includes people with
disabilities living in homes like the rest of us, as required by Israeli law.
The Israeli government should stop hiding behind excuses. All people – with and
without disabilities – have the right to live in homes in the
That is what the law requires; it is also the right thing to
do.The author is the Syracuse University College of Law’s Bond,
Schoeneck & King Distinguished Professor of Law.
She founded and
directs the College of Law’s Disability Law and Policy Program.
served as a consultant to Bizchut, JDC Israel’s Unlimited Project, Israel’s
Commission in Equality for People with Disabilities (the Netzivut) and the
National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi).