(New York) – Bryan Russell, a Peruvian human rights advocate, is the 2021 recipient of the Human Rights Watch Marca Bristo Fellowship for Courageous Leadership in Disability Rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
Russell, 29, is a passionate advocate for inclusive schools, health care and political participation. He is a graduate of Ignacio de Loyola University and ran for Congress in 2019, the first person with Down Syndrome to pursue a political career in Peru. According to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, Russell is the first person with Down syndrome worldwide to run for public office.
“Bryan is breaking ground in so many ways: the first person with Down Syndrome to graduate from university in Peru and the first to run for public office,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director. “He is helping to change mindsets on what people with disabilities can do. We are honored to recognize what he’s already achieved and support what’s yet to come.”
Human Rights Watch first met Bryan Russell when he was running for Congress in Peru in 2019. During his campaign, many people questioned whether a person with Down Syndrome could hold public office, but Russell’s articulate speeches and clear commitment to improving education and health care for all Peruvians has helped dispel these misperceptions, Human Rights Watch said.
“I’m honest, transparent and hard-working,” Russell said. “I want to break the paradigm that someone with Down syndrome can’t be independent, that someone like me can’t represent our diverse population. I can and someday I will. I want to be a voice for change. Accepting you’re not perfect makes you stronger.”
Russell is featured in a 2020 documentary “El Candidato,” chronicling his historic campaign for office. Over the last four years, Russell has been advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, including opposing a regressive bill that would undermine a groundbreaking disability rights law and other important legislation that give people with disabilities equal legal status in Peru. As a member of the Peruvian Down Syndrome Society, he has also been pushing for the government to consult with organizations of people with disabilities in Peru and to make certain that they are adequately represented in government, one of Russell’s personal goals.
“This fellowship is going to help me share with my peers in Peru relevant knowledge to better advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, including political rights,” Russell said.” Peru has good policies and guidelines, but is lagging behind in implementation. This needs to change.”
Russell was chosen among several candidates nominated by Human Rights Watch staff who have worked closely with Human Rights Watch. As part of the fellowship, Russell will receive training in research, advocacy, communication and fundraising from Human Rights Watch colleagues over the course of 2022. If health and security conditions allow, Russell will travel to New York City and Chicago to build advocacy networks with other organizations and advocates working on inclusive education, health care and political participation.
Human Rights Watch established the fellowship to honor the Human Rights Watch disability rights advisory committee inaugural chair Marca Bristo, the founder of Access Living, a major disability organization based in Chicago. Bristo was a key advocate for the adoption of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, and helped shape the Human Rights Watch disability rights strategy. She always encouraged the organization to actively involve people with disabilities in its work and to engage in the development of young disability rights activists.
“We are thrilled to be able to work with Bryan Russell, who, like Marca, is fighting to make sure the voices of people with disabilities are heard,” Barriga said. “The fellowship has been an incredible learning experience for both Human Rights Watch and the selected fellows.”
During her year as the inaugural recipient of the Marca Bristo Fellowship, Hauwa Ojeifo, a disability rights advocate from Nigeria, participated in remote training and advocacy opportunities, including delivering an opening statement at the 14th United Nations Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“Being the inaugural Marca Bristo fellow is the honor of a lifetime,” Ojeifo said. “The fellowship has been a real game changer for my organization, She Writes Woman, and in building my capacity to take a rights-based approach to mental health issues in Nigeria. I congratulate Bryan Russell for the important work he is doing. I hope this fellowship empowers him to take his work to the next level, just as it did for me.”
Daisy Feidt, Executive Vice President of Access Living, said: “It’s essential for Human Rights Watch to continue to learn from and support fellows with a range of disabilities who come from diverse backgrounds and regions of the world. This fellowship contributes to building a robust pool of self-advocates and networks to have a meaningful and lasting impact on disability rights and justice efforts worldwide. Marca would be proud.”