Prisoners of a free world
by John Sparrow
To be disabled in Hungary often means you
are unemployed and isolated despite efforts to end discrimination.
For Central Europe's physically and mentally challenged, life
is a daily struggle against prejudice and marginalization. In
one region in Hungary, attitudes are slowly changing as a result
of one woman's struggle to raise awareness of the plight of
Anita Lorincz, a 22-year-old Hungarian Red Cross volunteer,
has a dream. The day will come when disabled people in Central
Europe will be free of discrimination. They will have equal
opportunities, the right to a place in a normal school, be
considered for jobs, feel secure in their homes and travel
wherever they want to.
By 2010, Anita dreams, doors will be open to people in wheelchairs,
the partially sighted will board a bus without fear, and no
one will treat them like second-class citizens. It is a dream
shared by many, and in north-eastern Hungary, in Nograd county,
Anita - herself partially sighted - has begun a campaign to
The plight of the physically and mentally challenged has,
in part, to do with public perception of them, the notion
that someone with a handicap is a burden not an asset for
society. But in Central Europe, where countries are marching
up the road from command to free market economies, there is
another factor: growing evidence of ever-larger numbers of
people being left behind.
Health and care in the community are suffering as structural
adjustment programmes bite, and reforms are implemented. A
human cost is being paid for economic transition and the most
vulnerable are feeling it most: the poor, women, children,
the elderly and the disabled.
Of Central Europe's population of 130 million, 20 to 30 per
cent already live below the poverty line. Research shows that
the figure is rising. Unemployment is chronic, homelessness
is burgeoning, life for millions has been reduced to a daily
struggle for survival, and how the pressure of preparing to
join the European Union will impact further on countries like
Hungary and Poland is worrying. To be disabled in such an
environment brings only greater challenges.
Disabled voice must be heard
Anita's start was a modest one. Nograd, the poorest of all
the Hungarian counties, is one of three involved in Red Cross
efforts to establish community self-assessment and response.
A pilot project of the Federation's regional delegation in
Budapest, its aim is to change attitudes and to involve those
it wishes to help in finding solutions to their own problems.
Known as participatory rapid appraisal (PRA), it brings them
together with Red Cross, local government and non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), and for the first time in their lives
in many cases, the troubled and downtrodden are being listened
The local bus company, Nograd Volan, certainly listened to
Anita when she presented the travelling problems of the disabled
to them. Did they realize, she said, what a nightmare it was
to board? The buses were not wheelchair friendly and the partially
sighted had a problem finding the step, and the rails and
Company director Jozsef Horvath was taken aback, and sympathetic.
"So what, young lady, can we do about it?" Luminous
paint or tape would help the partially sighted, she said.
He agreed, and has since offered support for a Red Cross campaign
for the disabled that Anita will be heading. With 6,000 buses
in the nationwide network the company belongs to, her ambitions
are clear on the road ahead.
There is a burning need for the disabled voice to be heard
in Hungary. No precise figures exist but government reports
have estimated that between 6 and 10 per cent of the population
is disabled, some 600,000 to 1 million people. The World Health
Organization has talked of between 10 and 12 per cent, and
newspapers have used similar figures, reporting 300,000 physically
and 300,000 mentally handicapped, 40-50,000 visually impaired
and a similar number of deaf. The count may be inflated -
the seriously deprived able-bodied can be found in disabled
institutions, for example - but as an indicator it remains
worrying. Anita's home town, the Nograd capital of Salgotarjan,
has 2,500 physically handicapped which is 5 to 6 per cent
of the population.
There is no reason to suppose that statistics are dissimilar
elsewhere in Central Europe, and with the disabled's own testimony
revealing them to be to a large extent marginalized, excluded
from normal society, or confined to their homes, the situation
is a grave humanitarian one. NGO professionals speak of the
disabled leading lonely, isolated lives. Said Gyenge Gyorgyne
Agi, a Salgotarjan health worker, "Often they are prisoners
in a difficult world of which they become shy. In the average
community there is discrimination, and even when there isn't,
the disabled believe there is. Able-bodied people don't know
how to behave towards them, or communicate, so they either
ignore them or behave badly. Empathy is missing."
A Federation project aims to change attitudes
and involve the disabled in finding solutions to their problems.
Full and equal participation
All this in a country seen to lead the region in support
for the disabled. Hungary's 1998 Rights of Persons Living
with Disabilities law defined those rights and brought public
attention to key issues. Among other things, the law requires
all public buildings to be made accessible to the disabled
by 2005. It brought worldwide recognition and last year Hungary
received the fourth annual Franklin Delano Roosevelt International
Disability Award for its "noteworthy national progress"
towards the United Nations goal of "full and equal participation"
of disabled people in the life of their societies. There was
praise for its children's programmes, incentives for employers
to hire the disabled, and its promotion of disability support
One is hard-pressed to see the impact. If you are disabled
in Hungary you are generally unemployed, and in Anita's county
there are only two employers who will hire you. They understandably
have few vacancies.
The Salgotarjan outlet of an international burger franchise
known for its progressive employment policy elsewhere, says
categorically it does not hire the disabled. There were, said
the manager, so many able-bodied people waiting for a job
in the county.
When the PRA asked a public meeting of disabled people how
the Red Cross could best assist them, finding a job was top
of most lists. There were other priorities as well. Help for
the homeless was one of them. Many handicapped people face
life on the streets, particularly in Budapest, but also in
provincial towns like Salgotarjan. Some have been disabled
after becoming homeless and Dickensian stories abound.
Housing is a worry for the disabled. Without a job, and
struggling on low social benefits, they fear eviction for
non-payment of rent, gas and electric-ity. Others lack the
means to adapt homes to their needs. Access to public buildings
is coming too slowly, and libraries, museums, cinemas, theatres
and cultural centres remain closed to the physically challenged.
So do many railway stations and, even if they make it up the
stairs, the height of steps into the trains is an obstacle.
Reform in education is overdue and, while there is a shortage
of specialist teachers, more integrated schools are wanted.
Children educated in special institutions find adjustment
Anita is also concerned about education. Her best friend
was just refused a place on an English-language course. The
reason: like Anita she is partially sighted. A mindset needs
changing in Central Europe. A determined young woman and a
Red Cross campaign will soon start to do that in Nograd. With
support it could become regional.
John Sparrow is the Federation regional information delegate
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