This article explores the development dynamics of welfare states by examining how social rights are reflected in disability policies. The characteristics of disability policies in Korea and Brazil present a combination of foreign factors in shaking up the path of the previous welfare system and introducing new policy ideas: the influence of international organizations, and the diffusion from below.

Historically, welfare state research has been centered on social policies directed at non-disabled people. However, to understand the level of development and changes in the welfare state, it is necessary to treat disability policy as a significant example. This is because people with disabilities represent a typical target group of social rights.

The conception of citizenship in modern society consists of civil, political, and social rights. Among these, social rights refer to the social conditions that enable citizens to maintain their daily lives and the right to participate in society. People with disability are largely excluded from social activities, especially when their access to mobility is restricted. Therefore, whether or not they realize their social rights is directly related to their survival and can be seen as a critical development standard for the welfare state. The United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, also emphasizes the development of social rights as a civil right that recognizes people with disabilities as full members of their social and political community.

This article explores the development of the welfare state by examining whether social rights are reflected in disability policies. To do so, I highlight two cases: Korea and Brazil. These two countries exhibit to what extent the phenomenon of access to social rights for people with disabilities is difficult to explain drawing on existing welfare state theories. Previous welfare state research has mainly focused on countries' internal dynamics and used different variables to explain variation. This has also been the case for countries with relative underdevelopment in terms of welfare, which has been discussed focusing on political factors within.

It stands out, however, that similar disability policies have been introduced in countries with little political, economic, geographical, and historical proximity and similarity. Such is the case of Korea and Brazil. Both countries initially did not view people with disabilities as citizens with rights. However, since the 2000s, some elements of a social rights conception began to be reflected in disability policies in both places, despite their very different policy environments. This phenomenon bears the question of what caused the similar development.

There are limits to explaining the sudden expansion of social rights or the increase in the number of countries introducing similar policies solely with variables that operate within the country. To explain these cases, one must approach them differently and consider influences outside each country that may trace the path of similar policy adoption: What factors lead to the diffusion of similar policy ideas? Who is the leading actor in the diffusion of social rights in disability policies in both countries? How do they access and diffuse new policy ideas from external sources?



The case of Korea


In establishing the first Comprehensive Plan for Persons with Disabilities (1998-2002), Korea gave reception to ideas from international organizations for establishing mid- to long-term measures at the national level and including elements of social rights. As a result, disability policy, which previously had the character of a medical model, instead began to reflect advocate’s demands for more social participation and equality. These demands were pushed forward by persons with disabilities and social movements.


Before the first Comprehensive Plan of Policies were passed, it was not easy for civil society or policy entrepreneurs to learn about policy ideas from outside the country, since this plan predated the broad diffusion of Internet use. However, college students leading the disability movement encountered foreign policies to support people with disabilities in their classes and textbooks, later organizing to request these kinds of policies from the government, and thus provided input for establishing Korea's early disability plan. In that time (1980~1990), no alternatives were presented domestically that the disability movement could pick up on. In the end, as a latecomer welfare state, to fill in the gaps in policy and solve the problems experienced by people with disabilities, there was no choice but to review the ideological orientation and policy ideas already discussed by international organizations and developed countries as significant alternatives.


In this process of policy diffusion, Korea's disability policy showed the characteristic of moving away from the initial state-led pursuit of legitimacy and toward a lesson-drawing mechanism through movement from below. Moreover, hosting the Roosevelt International Disability Award (1996) and the 97 Seoul International Conference on Disability also helped secure public legitimacy to develop Korea’s disability policy and raise its international status.


In consequence, all these progressive elements - the establishment of mid- to long-term measures at the national level under the first Comprehensive Plan. the introduction of social rights elements in disability policy, and the concrete mandates included in the plan - were adopted reflecting external influences. This is not necessarily a negative development, as these changes helped improve the policy’s legitimacy and better reflected the needs and demands from those groups affected by the policy, namely the disability movement. Since then, from the Second Policy Plan (2003~2007) to the sixth and current Policy Plan (2023~2027), the disability movement has grown and become more active, and they have taken the lead in proposing policy measures and diffusing policy ideas for persons with disabilities.



The Case of Brazil


Brazil also introduced a social rights dimension into its disability policy in a process similar to the one described in Korea. Brazil's Política Nacional de Assistencia Social (PNAS) and the Integrated Social Assistance System (port. SUAS) show a break with the previous paradigm regarding disability policy, and in particular, the Integrated Social Assistance System emphasizes the concept of social rights for people with disabilities that was established as the first policy adopted.  


In the previously existing legal system, people with disabilities were socially excluded or treated as beneficiaries of welfare without full access to their rights as citizens. They were often were confined to protective facilities rather than participating in social activities, and received residual welfare support only as deemed necessary for survival. However, after the UN International Year of Persons with Disabilities in 1981, the concept of social rights entered societal discourse along with the revitalization of the disability movement and made its way into the Integrated social assistance system.


In addition, when the country ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, Constitutional Amendment Status was granted to the Convention under Decree No. 6949. Since the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the social rights of disability policies have continued to be strengthened by revising or introducing new policy components to strengthen the social rights of people with disability. For example, to ensure the effective implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Brazilian disability activists actively participated in the process of drafting the Brazilian Law of Inclusion of People with Disabilities (BLI), passed in 2015. There was also an attempt by the Brazilian government to create an integrated disability assessment model in 2018.



Policy Diffusion from Outside and from Below


Disability policies in both countries present a combination of foreign factors in shaking up the path of the previous welfare system by introducing new policy ideas: the influence of international organizations, and the diffusion from below. First, from a top-down perspective, through the proper adoption and incorporation functioning of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to their legal systems. Second, from a bottom-up perspective, through the support and pressure from organized social movements and civil society in support of more progressive policies for people with disabilities. In consequence, both Korea and Brazil enacted domestic regulation to enforce the UN Convention and promote its implementation.


These case studies bear evidence of helpful strategies for countries with underdeveloped disability policies. They emphasize the key role and status of international organizations in the diffusion global social policies. However, the sole incorporation of international declarations is insufficient by itself. Both Korea and Brazil show that successful strategies to strengthen the capabilities of persons with disabilities must be accompanied by appropriate programmatic decisions informed by social movements and by the ‘target groups’ themselves.


Therefore, these cases also highlight the importance for people with disabilities to continue to engage in organized civil society. The factor that facilitates diffusion ‘from below’ is the constant demand for more progressive policy models first advocated by international organizations. Global social policy and the advancement of human rights frameworks for persons with disabilities have been, first and foremost, strengthened through the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

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