Several participants of the "Agenda 50" campaign at the final Regional Development Forum. Photo by: Facebook of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
It is impossible to change life in cities just in three years (the timeline of the “Agenda 50” campaign implementation). But changing the structure of relationships in local communities is possible.
Three years ago, the “Agenda 50” campaign was launched with a survey of the potential of 20 Belarusian cities regarding the readiness to implement the principles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The survey confirmed that local authorities have been shaping their agendas by focusing mainly on plans and budgetary frameworks developed by higher authorities, rather than on real needs and needs “on the ground”. This significantly reduced the possibility of participating in shaping the policy on disability of other subjects - public organizations, businesses, interested people and people with disabilities. Another common problem was that all of them almost didn’t interact with each other at all - in such a situation, there was absolutely nothing to say about accessibility. Often people with disabilities did not know about their rights, about certain services. In contrast to the Convention's approach, in most cases, the organization of leisure activities, forms of education and employment for people with disabilities is designed so that it excludes them from public life rather than contributes to the expansion of their social connections and relationships. For children with disabilities separate holidays and concerts are organized, separate classes for learning or homeschooling is offered, special enterprises are created where only people with disabilities work, etc. Such an approach to disability issues is contrary to the Convention signed by our country. With the aim to start changing something in this area, several Belarusian and European public organizations, with the support of the European Union, launched the “Agenda 50” campaign, which has been implemented for three years in five pilot cities selected in the course of the survey. Now the project, which main results was the five local agendas’ creation, as well as the change in thinking and interaction of actors who work with disability issues, has been finalized. Oksana Shelest, senior analyst at the Centre for European Transformation who conducted a study on the results of the campaign, told about the campaign outputs.
Attitudes to the problems of people with disabilities change
According to Oksana Shelest, one of the major positive changes in small cities that can be observed in recent years has been a change in attitudes towards people with disabilities. The understanding of the problems of people with mental disabilities, multiple disabilities, etc. is expanding. The concept of a barrier-free environment gradually goes beyond ramps, although it is still primarily associated with accessibility for people using wheelchairs. Issues related to overcoming physical barriers for visually impaired and hearing impaired people are poorly addressed at the local level, but at least these are talked about.
Oksana Shelest. Photo by "EuroBelarus" Information Service
The relevance of problems related to education and employment is increasing. If three years ago, the perception of this problem was most often reduced to providing barrier-free environment in educational institutions, now the issues of preparation for the organization and perception of inclusive education are being analyzed by teachers, parents and children - both by parents of children with disabilities and parents of other schoolchildren.
A separate issue is training of public institutions staff at least in those areas where they most often encounter people with disabilities. Many complaints are raised in the sphere of medical services, education, consumer services. Problems remain in the distribution of benefits, social guarantees and assistance, as well. For example, the state provides means of rehabilitation, but at the same time few people think about the right of their choice by those who have special needs.
“After all, we have: healthy people once decided for everybody, and that’s it! Now, if a person “breaks down” – well, the medicine has done its job, and that’s all, then it’s not its concern. And here it is necessary that the Territorial Social Services Centers, social services, employment service, and who else is there, come to this person, and decide together with him or her how to build the life further. And we have it this way: a person leaves the hospital, here you have a standard set of what you are entitled to have. And maybe he or she does not need nothing from this set? May be he or she does have other problems at all? ”, researchers cite people with disabilities.
And yet the most problematic issue remains the sphere of employment. Difficulties on this path are caused by everything related to the Minsk City Medical and Rehabilitation Expert Commission, labour recommendations, list of professions. In small towns, such problems are encountered almost everywhere, but there are no mechanisms for solving them. This is certainly not the only, but a very serious barrier to independent living for people with disabilities, which requires consideration at national level.
Did the principle of “nothing for us without us” work out?
The most active persons in the creation of local agendas in all towns and cities were representatives of territorial social service centers and public organizations working with people with disabilities. Local authorities involved in the work process with more or less intensity, participated in the meetings on the creation of local agendas. But non-profile public organizations, as well as representatives of businesses and church, were practically not engaged.
Interestingly, social service workers changed their perception of the problems which they work with in the course of the campaign.
“Making a start from people and their problems is like such a simple thought in this Convention of yours. And by the way, this changes radically the whole work”, the researchers cite them.
Although public consultations and information campaigns took place in all cities in the development of agendas, people with disabilities participated in this process sporadically. The only exceptions were representatives of public organizations and social services who had disabilities themselves and thus actively participated in the development of local agendas. Most often, the role of the campaign main target audience was reduced to the fact that it provided feedback. The reason for this is the high level of passivity, dependent attitudes, as well as the “trained helplessness” of these people themselves. Such attitudes are still typical for most people with disabilities, and those who were able to overcome social and physical barriers and achieve a certain level of self-realization either begin to engage in social activities themselves or ignore any attempts to involve them in the processes of discussion and solving common problems in a city or area, is noted in the study.
New skills and new challenges
According to Oksana Shelest, in different cities it was necessary to overcome various barriers in order to change the relationship between all the campaign participants. Minimal changes in this plan took place in Valożyn – there, before the start of the project, organizations working with disability issues were closely linked with each other. But in Babruysk, Stoubtsy and Stolin, researchers noted the development of ties and the strengthening of relations between relevant NGOs and various state social institutions. In Ščučyn, there was a different structure of relations between the leadership of Territorial Social Services Center and the authorities, so new formats of interaction and the inclusion of disability issues in regional development plans were found.
“We’ve decided that this is our big joint work between public organizations and social services. We all usually sit and wait for something from the executive committee. And here we can come to them - and show how much we can contribute to solving these problems, that we do not want to get something from them - but we are ready to contribute our strength, our work to solving the problems. And now the dialogue can begin with this”, say participants from Babruysk.
Oksana Shelest made accent on some of the problems and challenges that campaign participants still need to work on. For example, an adequate assessment of local problems and requests, setting priorities (often stereotypical judgments are made as problems, which in practice are not relevant for the region). What remains important is engaging different subjects into the local planning processes, who in one way or another deal with issues related to the quality of life of people with disabilities. This also includes expanding the circle of stakeholders and strengthening social responsibility of local communities. The search for resources to accomplish the tasks set and achieve the goals will always be relevant.
In general, working with local agendas and the Convention led to changes in the perceptions of campaign participants on how to approach the problems of people with disabilities, and the boundaries of goal setting were expanded. And the main thing that all participants understood is that the documents they have created are not the end, but only the beginning of work on implementing the values of the Convention into reality.
The material was prepared in the framework of the international project "Rights of People with Disabilities: agenda for Belarus (Agenda 50)".