People with disabilities have suffered from the pandemic in the Western Balkans

As part of our democracy support, we want to bring the voices of the Western Balkans into the Finnish and European debate. We conducted a study for Demo Finland on the opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in political party activities. In this article, Suvad Zahirović who works as an executive director of the Bosnian organization for people with disabilities Lotos, will reflect on the societal status of people with disabilities in the Western Balkan societies.

People with disabilities are one of the most discriminated groups in the Western Balkans. The Covid-19 pandemic has further isolated people with disabilities from societies and made it difficult for them to participate.

Changing the situation would require corrective and selective action. Legislation in line with the international standards alone is not enough if the implementation remains weak.

Permanent change of the situation of people with disabilities would require, above all, a change in the attitudes of societies in the Western Balkans.

The voice of people with disabilities and their organizations must be heard in all sections of societal life.

New political realities meant new value systems

The dissolution of Yugoslavia also meant the end of an era and politics in approaching the phenomenon of disability. The emergence of new states meant the development of new social relations and the adoption of new value systems. These systems were based on democratic principles and full respect for human rights for all citizens.

However, despite the proclaimed value system, it is evident that the new system included those who are equal and those who are slightly more equal. People with disabilities and their organizations have sought to put disability issues on the agenda using the new international framework based on the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities.

War veterans and civilian victims of war

Newly formed states favored those persons with disabilities whose disability was directly or indirectly caused by participation in war activities, or as a result of hostilities. This has enabled discrimination on the grounds of disability.

The rights that support war veterans and civilian victims of war are many times more favorably defined than the rights of other persons with disabilities. Also, the organizations that support war veterans or civilian victims of war receive much greater support in their establishment and work.

Support for war veterans and civilian victims of war has often been used by political parties as an instrument for political influence ensuring supremacy in political struggles in all Western Balkan countries.

A merciful and medical approach to disability has remained the predominant way of defining policies for people with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities whose disability is not directly or indirectly caused by the war are pushed to the margins of society, into exclusion and poverty. Most often to the care and support of their families. The same fate befell the organizations of persons with disabilities. They should be the sole and legitimate voice of persons with disabilities in decision-making processes concerning persons with disabilities.

No actual indication of a change

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified by all Western Balkan countries. The ratification has resulted in the adoption of a “new dictionary” based on the declarative proclamation of rights, non-discrimination, and full inclusion of persons with disabilities. However, nothing has significantly changed in the actual attitudes of Western Balkan countries towards persons with disabilities.

On the contrary, all forms of discrimination are still present. Persons with disabilities continue to be excluded and marginalized and certainly the poorest category of the population.

Exclusion and discrimination and other forms of unacceptable treatment are particularly pronounced in relation to women with disabilities. They are multiple discriminated against on the grounds of their disability and gender. The risk of all forms of violence against women with disabilities is also higher.

However social institutions remain unwilling to meet their obligations to protect the rights and dignity of women with disabilities as well as ensure their inclusion in community life.

The pandemic has moved people with disabilities deeper into poverty

The Covid-19 pandemic shaped the balance of power and needs of certain groups in the Western Balkans. It also further manifested the attitudes of these societies towards people with disabilities.

During the pandemic, the previous “silent” isolation and exclusion has received its formal, legal framework. Persons with disabilities continued to live in isolation and exclusion. In addition to this, they were prevented from accessing the most necessary support services. Due to this, the right to life of a large number of persons with disabilities has been directly endangered.

Social distance has moved people with disabilities deeper into poverty.  The transition to online ways of acting in certain key areas has further contributed to their exclusion. Even before being excluded from the process of quality inclusive education, they are additionally also prevented from participating in social life because they lack appropriate equipment, without the ability to provide it and training to use it.

Even before the pandemic, people with disabilities were excluded from the process of quality inclusive education. Transition to online ways of acting in certain key areas has further contributed to their exclusion through the lack of proper equipment, the ability to provide it, and training to use it.

There has been a lot of talk by international and local authorities about post-Covid measures states should take to eliminate the harmful effects and consequences of the pandemic. However, it seems that people with disabilities and their organizations are left to fend for themselves.

Disability is a universal phenomenon  

In addition to the issues that have been raised in this article, old and new fears of escalating political and social relations in the Western Balkans are a cause for concern for people with disabilities and their families, who are still their only daily support.

But the situation we live in by no means accepts hopelessness as the only response to the attitude of the Western Balkan countries towards people with disabilities.

Disability is a universal phenomenon and applies to all groups and all societies. People with disabilities and their organizations will continue to look for ways to ensure change that will improve the quality of life and respect for rights and dignity for about 15% of the Western Balkans.

Because good for people with disabilities in every society means good for everyone.

Suvad Zahirović is the executive director of the Information Center for Persons with Disabilities ”Lotos” in Tuzla. He has been blind since birth. Mr. Zahirović graduated from the Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade. Previously Mr. Zahirović has worked as a social policy advisor in the office of the Vice President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and has been one of the main actors in the process of creating the Disability Policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Kalevi Sorsa Foundation has been working with local partners in the Western Balkans since 2008. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, our partner organization is Forum of Left Iniative.

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