People with Disabilities in Belarus: Struggling with Barriers

In May, Belarusian disability rights activists held a "Week of Accessibility." According to the organisers, without the creation of an accessible infrastructure for disabled people it is not possible to talk about true equality in Belarusian society. Belarus remains the only country in Europe that has not acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. People with disabilities remain marginalised in Belarus.

A significant portion of people with disabilities rarely leave their apartments and have no opportunity to study or work. Disabled people have to deal with both physical and regulatory barriers. The main blame for this lies with the state authorities and a society that still retains the stereotypes about the people with disabilities.

However, people with disabilities themselves take matters into their own hands and fight for their rights more and more often. Today they require the solidarity of Belarusians and the international community to achieve the accession of Belarus to the UN Convention.

At Home, out of Work

More than 512,000 people with disabilities live in Belarus. Among them, 20,000 use wheelchairs. Moreover, the annual incidence of disability increases by around 50,000. Every twentieth Belarusian is disabled, but society seems not to notice this problem. The absence of adequate infrastructure leads to all-to-familiar stories where people with disabilities rarely leave their flats. According to the estimates of wheelchair users, 9 out of 10 people with a physical disability cannot leave their houses independently.

9 of 10 wheelchair users cannot leave their houses independently

Belarus is slowly creating the necessary conditions for the disabled in the form of ramps or low-floor buses. However, the majority of public and private institutions remain inaccessible to wheelchair users. A few years ago, the coordinator of the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities Sergey Drozdovsky, while visiting the theatre in Minsk, told the guard that the theatre remains inaccessible to people with disabilities even after the latest renovation. In response, the guards of the theatre kicked him out of the theatre.

In addition to the absence of the needed infrastructure to help them get around, the disabled in Belarus face other issues with getting an education and securing work. The state has created enough secondary schools for the disabled. People with disabilities can study in specialised classes, special schools and even boarding schools, but often their infrastructure remains inadequate to meet the needs of the disabled. It should also be noted that there is not one high school in the country prepared to teach pupils that have a variety of disabilities. 

Only 14% of Belarusian disabled people of working age have a job. While the majority of disabled people are working in positions that require minimal qualifications with low wages. Also, companies often officially hire disabled people to work for them, but do not actually provide them with any actual work after they are hired.

This phenomenon is the result of the Belarusian authorities introduction of tax incentives for enterprises in which 50% of workers are disabled. Thus, the firms use disabled people for their own purposes. Meanwhile, the skills of the people with disabilities continue to decline.

What Makes Things Worse

Belarus does not seem like a unique country that has a problem with discrimination against the disabled. Even well developed countries are often unable to provide equal opportunities for people with disabilities. However, the situation for people with disabilities in Belarus remains different for several reasons.

Belarusian authorities still have not introduced any anti-discrimination legislation and some laws violate the rights of the disabled. Consider the fact that people with significant disabilities cannot adopt children. On the other hand, the same people have no right to go through the border without waiting in line. If disabled Belarusians live in nursing homes for retirees, they have no guarantee that they can leave them or while they are there, to be able to use their own money freely.

Curbs remain unprepared to accommodate the disabled, and the drivers are not allowed to go out and help a disabled person to get into the bus.

Instead of really addressing these issues, the authorities take half measures. For example, the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) began to produce low-floor buses, but often people with disabilities cannot get into them. Curbs remain unprepared to accommodate the disabled, and the drivers are not allowed to go out and help a disabled person to get into the bus. Local authorities build ramps, but they often do not meet the appropriate standards.

Poverty also remains a significant factor influencing the lives of the disabled. The state does not have the necessary funds to provide appropriate conditions for disabled persons at universities or health centres. Social support payments to the disabled remain very small. For example, wheelchair users in Belarus monthly receive about € 100.

Despite the fact that Belarusian society remains concerned about the state of the disabled people in Belarus, it retains significant stereotypes.

According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies only a third of Belarusians support the idea that his child could study in the same class with disabled children. Only a quarter of Belarusians think that the state should create conditions so that people with disabilities could work equally with everyone. Others believe that the state should increase benefits and social payments to the disabled so that they did not have to earn a living. Still others believe that the state should create specialised enterprises for the employment of people with disabilities.

Will Disabled People Win Over the Authorities

Belarus has not acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, though it has complied with all the formal requirements. Sergey Drozdovsky, coordinator of the Office of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said that today, "we need only the political will and the raised hand of one deputy who would put the question of accession to the Convention on the agenda." The authorities refrain from acceding for one reason. The Convention binds the state, making it fulfil its obligations under the UN Convention.

Western aid has been of great importance to Belarusian people with disabilities. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development promotes inclusive education for people with disabilities. The main purpose of the USAID programme is to create the necessary infrastructure - ramps and doors, that have been adopted to the needs of people with disabilities. Also as part of this program experts develop a joint study programme for children and those children with disabilities.

However, disabled persons are creating hope all on their own. People with disabilities unite together and form organisations, hold protests and create their own special maps, where they mark the places that are accessible for the people with disabilities. Self-organisation remains the only viable way to fight for their rights. During the "Week of Accessibility" disability rights activists held many public lectures and free legal consultations to help people with disabilities to preserve and utilise their rights.

The disability rights movement remains an important part of civil society in Belarus. The West should help it not only financially, but also facilitate and encourage Belarus's accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

 

Ryhor Astapenia is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre, an editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea and a coordinator of BelarusProfile.com.

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