People with physical disabilities in the Balkans still face difficulties in achieving one of the fundamental human rights.
By Goran Trajkov for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 23/05/12
Despite laws in individual countries and region-wide efforts to increase recognition of the problem, civic groups and government officials agree that Southeast Europe lags in providing accessibility to people with disabilities.
From Skopje to Bucharest, advocates say change to help people with physical disabilities is exceptionally slow in coming, and in some cases, accessibility laws aren't being followed. In some cases, NGOs directly involved in working with the disabled aren't even consulted about how to work with the population.
"Over [the past] ten years, a lot of efforts have been deployed … but unfortunately the representatives of the NGOs involved in this campaign were not even called for consultation," Adrian Mihalcea, president of the Romanian Association of People with Neuromotor Disabilities (ANHR), told SETimes.
The problem is acknowledged on a national and regional level.
"Persons with disabilities in the European Union face today in our society a multitude of barriers which prevent them from participating on an equal basis with other citizens," the European Disability Forum said in a study released in April.
The EC approved a ten-year plan in 2010, including access to EU funding, awareness campaigns, and programmes to get nations to work together, in an effort to remove obstacles for disabled people. UN nations also signed a statement recognising the rights of people with disabilities in 2007.
Despite those plans, basic services remain out of reach for many.
Dimitar, a resident of Bitola in southern Macedonia, said he's been waiting since he was a child for programmes to be implemented. Many would improve his life.
"I have many problems, because I feel very different from the others by the fact that I cannot enter where I want," Dimitar, who would not give his last name because of his physical condition, told SETimes. "Everyone perceives me strangely. I feel uncomfortable, so do not get to finish my work. I send my relatives and friends to carry documents to institutions, if I need something."
Macedonia passed a law in 2003 requiring that all buildings be accessible to the handicapped. But nearly a decade later, an effort to put wheelchair ramps on some ministry buildings is only "in its initial phase," according to the ministry of labour and social policy.
In Kosovo, NGO Handicap Kosova chairman Gezim Abazi told SETimes "Formally, there is satisfactory progress in regards to the needs of handicapped people. But in practice, things are different, as there is no implementation of the strategy or the laws, which makes me deeply upset," Abazi told SETimes.
Many of the region's governments are taking slow measures towards the fix.
"The government has several times brought solutions to overcome these problems and many institutions have undertaken activities to build ramps and lifts for this category of citizens. But not all institutions have them, so the government remains committed to overcome these obstacles," Pavle Sazdov, president of the Inter-Parliamentary Group on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, told SETimes.
Between 2001 and 2005, a campaign was started in Romania under the slogan "Cities for all" and deployed in 23 counties. "What's the situation today, after seven years? Almost the same," Mihalcea told SETimes.
Greece took significant strides towards accessibility in 2003, ahead of the Athens Olympic Games. Funds were used towards massive work to make the city accessible. Ramps were created for wheelchairs, and specially designed walkways for the blind were installed throughout the city.
But Athens remains an anomaly.
Except for new buildings in most Balkan cities, many institutions remain inaccessible for people with disabilities -- either because they are considered historic monuments or require significant investments to get the new installations.
Tram stations, train stations, taxis -- all remain nightmares for a person with a disability.
"Unfortunately, it is the NGOs that supervise if the specific laws are applied and access facilitated for people with disabilities. Any other proposal meant to enhance accessibility for them hit a wall which is called 'the financial crisis,'" Mihalcea said.
The European Disability Forum suggests that the perception that fully accessible buildings are more expensive to build is a myth.
"In fact, building accessible infrastructure costs no more money than building inaccessible ones and actually creates added value for the industry since a building that meets accessibility requirements will be able to adapt more easily to changing needs, including the aging or emerging disabilities of its occupants, " it said in a March 2012 report.
Southeast European Times correspondent Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest contributed to this report.