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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 the disabled.

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 pursue it.

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 to.

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 hand-straps inside.

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 groups.
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 later problematic.

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
John Sparrow is the Federation regional information delegate in Budapest.

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