The excitement surrounding the Paralympics brings home just how far so many countries have come in rethinking attitudes to disability and concentrating on social inclusion. Not, unfortunately, in Belarus, says Sergey Drozdovsky.
According to recent official statistics (July 2012), there are 515,300 disabled people in Belarus, which equates to 5.4% of the population. Each year the government introduces new programmes and legislation aimed at ‘improving the quality of life of disabled people..integrating them into society’. Yet the way disabled people are treated in Belarus has remained unchanged since Soviet times. This is hardly surprising, given how the state continues to view disabled people as objects, rather than as citizens with rights and freedoms. Disabled people have become simply part of an equation encompassing costs to the budget and the continuing existence of the state monopoly of social services.
There is not a single disabled person in the judiciary or at any level of government in Belarus; and it is, therefore, hard to imagine anyone in an official capacity announcing his or her intention to fight for the rights of disabled people. This situation has arisen not simply because equal opportunities for people with disabilities do not exist, but because they are prevented by law from working in government. An individual is thus excluded on grounds of disability, rather than the lack of any particular personal qualities.
‘Unemployment among people with disabilities stands at 80% (for those classified as most severely disabled the figure is over 95%). Unlike his or her fellow citizens, a disabled person does not have the right to work unless he or she has obtained the necessary medical approval’
'The Belarusian government does not want people in its service who look different, and nor, it seems, does it want them to contribute to GDP.'
The Belarusian government does not want people in its service who look different, and nor, it seems, does it want them to contribute to GDP. How else can one explain the government’s support for a prohibitive system, which uses antediluvian medical guidelines established more than 50 years ago to limit a person’s right to work? And this is in a situation where unemployment among people with disabilities stands at 80% (for those classified as most severely disabled the figure is over 95%). Unlike his or her fellow citizens, a disabled person does not have the right to work unless he or she has obtained the necessary medical approval, which has little to do with suitability for the job in question. Exactly the same is true of disabled people’s access to professional qualifications. Year in year out, decisions about people’s access to education are made on the grounds of disability.
However, not everyone with a disability is prevented from working. The problem is that the majority of employers refuse to hire them because of negative attitudes towards workers with disabilities. Approximately 40% of disabled people who have tried to find jobs say they have been refused work simply because of their disability. Employers seek to justify this by pointing out that state support for would-be employers is inadequate and working environments are often unsuitable and inaccessible. Disabled people themselves have very low expectations of infrastructure facilities ever becoming accessible.
Paradoxically, the huge administrative efforts and multimillion dollar projects intended to create an inclusive environment have failed to yield the desired or expected results. This is hardly surprising: since 1991 the construction of buildings without disabled access has been against the law, yet each year thousands of inaccessible buildings are built and approved for use by a commission of government experts. The government’s programme to create access for all is being implemented at the same time as inaccessible buildings and other facilities are being passed as fit for purpose.
It could be said that these frequent examples of unequal treatment of disabled people constitute discrimination. But Belarusian law has no definition of discrimination on the grounds of disability. There is consequently neither a legal framework to protect against it, nor a single legal precedent for fighting it, though every disabled person can cite at least one instance (often more) where his or her rights have been infringed by unfair treatment or discrimination.
'Approximately 40% of disabled people who have tried to find jobs say they have been refused work simply because of their disability.'
In failing to provide legal safeguards against discrimination the judiciary is actually opening the door to discriminatory legislation. A person can, for instance, be stripped of the right to lifelong social protection, with no right of appeal, if his or her disability was acquired in any one of a set of circumstances e.g. as a result of alcohol intoxication.
Segregation on the grounds of disability, i.e. putting people in homes, is government policy. Belarus has 77 different types of home for the elderly and the disabled, housing almost 18,000 people. The residents of these institutions have restricted rights e.g. to engage in economic activity or move from one place to another and the coercive measures to which they are subjected mean that they are effectively being locked away because they are disabled. This situation is particularly acute for those who have been stripped of their legal competence, because there are virtually no legal guarantees that the situation could be reversed, given the right circumstances.
The continuing existence of these homes is inextricably linked to the way state support is allocated. In a significant number of cases, people are forced to enter these institutions voluntarily, because the state social services monopoly cannot provide an appropriate level of care. In ‘less serious’ cases too, the disabled person is treated as no more than an object and the recipient of social protection e.g. equipment that might enable him or her to lead a more normal life, such as crutches.
‘The only way we will bring about full inclusion is by addressing the problem as one of people with the same human rights as us. This means equality in both opportunities and outcomes.’
The lesson to be drawn from this is that, irrespective of the number of social support programmes, their content or their cost, the only way we will bring about significant change and the full inclusion of people with disabilities into the life of society is by addressing the problem as one of people with the same human rights as us. This means equality in terms of both opportunities and outcomes.
Many countries have societies that are not fully inclusive, but the stubborn rejection of international human rights standards is a special feature of the Belarusian regime. There are no grounds for its refusal to sign up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (adopted in December 2006), which completely ignores the demands of disabled Belarusians. Meanwhile, a cursory glance at the position of people with disabilities in Belarus unfortunately leads to the conclusion that the country is gradually retreating from its declared principle of the need to respect, uphold and protect human rights.