Disability in Bulgaria - the necessity of higher social protection during the crisis period and the transition to a market economy

Gallina Atanassova outlines the effects that half a century of totalitarian socialism has had on the current situation of disabled people in Bulgaria. She describes the work of the Union of Disabled People in Bulgaria, a grass roots organization which advocates for the rights and needs of disabled people in Bulgaria. Third ENIL Seminar, Stockholm, Sweden June 1991. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs2/enilstockholmsem2.html. In: Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs2/enilstockholmsem1.html.

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Third ENIL Seminar
Stockholm, Sweden
June 1991

Disability in Bulgaria - the necessity of higher social protection
during the crisis period and the transition to a market economy

Gallina Atanassova

It is evident that disabled people are in a particularly unfavorable position as they are unable to secure for themselves the necessary conditions for individual and social way of life. If the non-disabled individual needs special care and help from the beginning until the end of his life, the disabled individual remains a "child" in society forever.

Today, during the first steps towards the process of democratic developments in our country, and after half a century of totalitarian socialism, we are now trying to answer the question of why the problems of disability, in history as well as social practices, were neglected until now. This has led to lower financial investments in this field.

This is not the case however when it comes to women, children and pensioners in Bulgaria. A number of intensive studies were made in this field which led to taking practical measures. The superior members of the ruling political party undertook scientific and practical forums in these matters, though we have no knowledge that such forums were organized to deal with the problems of disability. It would be interesting to find out why there has been an apparent lack of interest in these problems.

First, these are the moral values of Bulgarian society, or perhaps more accurately, the deformation of the social moral values and principles. The ideological enthusiasm which was constantly incited in society could not exist in the hard and grim daily life of the disabled person. The particular character of the disabled person's life and its problems is not the best social environment for the ruling party to emphasize their successes.

Secondly, there was the total dejection of all social groups in society. In such an atmosphere the urgency of the state of one particular group, such as disabled people, would be very hard to notice. On the whole the social identification of disabled people as a specific group was not set.

Thirdly, studying the problems of disability meant in one way or another, exposing the neglected sides of society. This would not be possible in a social environment where only the positive side of the social development are set forth and where it is not customary to show the negative sides of it.

Fourthly, part of the information concerning disabled people was confidential, as was the aggravating state of the natural and social environment. This led to extremely unfavorable consequences for the individual and his health: increase of death rate; decrease of the natural growth of the population; increase of illnesses and the number of people with disabilities. The data on work accidents was also confidential, as well as the information about occupational health hazards, the causes for birth defects in children, and disabling accidents in the military.

In Bulgaria, the largest percentage of disabled people is between the ages of 45 and 54, after which it gradually decreases. It is highly probable that people from this age group who have various disabilities work intensively to secure a living for their families. This burden adversely affects the health condition of the individual after a certain age with information indicating that within the age group of people from 55 to 64 years of age, the majority are men with severe disabilities.

A special feature of the socio-demographic characteristics of the individuals is that the majority of rural people are between the ages of 15 and 44. This is probably due to the decreasing possibility of disabled people to move and settle from one place to another. During the period studied there was a high degree of migration from rural to urban centers.

The age group of disabled farm workers is between 35 - 44 years old. Evidently, at this age they are overworked, in part due to their general condition of health, and also the particular aspect of the farm work in Bulgaria.

The social status of people with disabilities is no different from that of the rest of the population. Most are married because they require help and support. Over 40 per cent of the families of disabled people raise children as much as as healthy people. Over 12 per cent of these families have three children as compared to the same number of children raised in non-disabled families where the percentage is 9 out of 100. This data illustrates the desire for normal reproduction among people with disabilities. It can be assumed that this is part of the whole pursuit of human realization.

The participation of people with disabilities in the workplace poses a problem which must be studied under serious analysis. A majority of disabled people have relatively little working experience and studies show that only half as many disabled people are hired as non-disabled. Another paradox is the nature of the work in which people with disabilities are engaged. Over 52 per cent work as physical laborers, in manual, non-mechanized labor - in relation to 30 per cent of non-disabled workers - and about 18 per cent are employed in physical mechanized labor, as compared to 10 per cent of the rest of the population. Only 10 per cent of disabled workers are engaged in non-physical employment. These facts are a result of a number of paradoxes in our legal system, giving the possibility to exercise professional labor from disabled persons in a manner that is discriminating.

The working conditions for people with disabilities raises a number of questions when compared to the conditions for the rest of the population. For example, 30 per cent of the employed disabled people work on two night shifts, 18 per cent of which include night shifts while compared to the non-disabled community where it is only 10 per cent. Another curious fact is that only 10 per cent of the employed disabled work part-time where among their counterparts of non-disabled people it is 15 per cent.

Studies show that 18 per cent of the disabled population has a willing desire to work while in the non-disabled community it is 15 per cent. The state could gain much more if adequate conditions for using the potential work of people with disabilities were utilized rather than creating special compensation funds and offering government restrictions on professional labour for the disabled.

The classification of Labour Health Experts (LHE) of "permanently disturbed professional ability" should acquire a new meaning since the information indicates that of those classified, 50 per cent are absolutely able to be engaged in physical, mental or combined labor.

First of all, among the reasons for employing disabled people are illnesses, 59 per cent, out of which 4 per cent: work accidents; 3 per cent: another type of accident. The number of work accidents among the employed disabled is higher than non-disabled, 7.5 per cent in relation to 3.7 per cent.

The working conditions for the disabled and labour protection, produce a high level of traumatic shock. Here we include disturbances and restriction in the motive and other functions among the disabled. The issue is to create adequate working conditions for the employed disabled, aiming at maximum use of their potential of work abilities under favorable conditions.

The incomes of people with disabilities on a large scale could be labelled as very low. Over 56 per cent of the disabled have a monthly income of over 90 levs. During the period this information was compiled (1986), the living minimum was set at 150 levs - 160-165 levs in reality. Only 13 per cent of the disabled live over the social minimum. Having in mind rapid inflation and higher cost of living, especially for people with disabilities, the information shows that a large number of people with disabilities live under the social living standards.

Among the medical reasons for disability in the first place are the illnesses of blood circulation nature (37 per cent); secondly, are those of a nervous system disorder (11 per cent); and thirdly, of psychological disturbances (10.5 per cent).

Among the social reasons for invalidity, a large part are due to biological or environmental causes (32 per cent); working or social conditions (26 per cent); socio-psychological problems (19 per cent); nutrition and bad habits (22 per cent). These causes have different roots. Part of them result from the cultural traditions of the society, others are matters of government and social policy/environmental care, housing policy, technological level of production and so on.

The creating of the Union of Disabled People in Bulgaria, as early as the first days after the fall of the totalitarian regime, is a favorable condition for protecting the interests of the disabled during the period of change towards a market economy.

The union administration is closely following every step of the legislative and executive authorities, as well as everything concerning the social policy of the disabled. The main efforts are now directed toward building popularity and prestige before Bulgarian society as well as foreign countries. Although the relatively small possibilities of the government and other economic units to invest along with our participation through legal manner, some major corrections have already been made in the legal regulations for disabled people.

We especially rely on the moral and methodical support of the international organizations which we highly respect, including DPI, FIMITIK, Mobility Intl., and ENIL. In the future we will count on common sense, humanity, tolerance, fare analysis of the problems and mutual cooperation with similar organizations all over the world.

Introducing UDPB

The Union of Disabled People in Bulgaria (UDPB) is a national, independent, self-governing organization which unites in its ranks, people with impairments, disabilities and handicaps. It is an exponent of the all-round needs and interests of disabled people - with the exception of those who are member of the previously existing structures of blind and deaf citizens - before the state, social and other authorities and organizations in the country and abroad. The UDPB was founded on the 14th of December 1989 and shortly after that was legally constituted. It is a grass roots membership organization with regional and branch structures.

The UDPB works for the solution of the socio-economic problem of disabled people and their many-sided development and social self-realization as citizens with equal rights in society. The Union attains its goals and objectives through:

  • reaching and attracting its new members on voluntary and individual basis;
  • publicizing its aims and objectives;
  • examining the needs of our members and submitting to the respective state authorities and public organizations proposals or draft laws for initiating or changing policy documents related to issues concerning the problems of disabled people;
  • assisting its members in extending their educational and vocational training;
  • cooperating with the state authorities and public organizations in raising the effectiveness of the medical, professional and social rehabilitation of disabled people and promoting their healthy way of living;
  • providing conditions for the improvement of health, social, cultural and recreational attendance for its members by building up rehabilitation, cultural, educational, athletic and other centers and facilities, rest homes, housing and home services for disabled people, etc.;
  • taking measures for the solution of the specific needs of disabled children and teenagers;
  • organizing sports, tourism and mobility among disabled persons;
  • assisting disabled people to actively overcome the architectural and transport barriers and to encourage the design and production of up-to-date technical equipment, aids and adaptations to allow the full participation of disabled people in economic and social activities;
  • active involvement in international contact and cooperation with similar international, national and regional governmental and non-governmental organizations and other structures.

Membership is voluntary and admission is done on an individual basis. Collective membership is also foreseen, in particular for specialized medical or rehabilitation centers, being either Bulgarian or foreign legal entities.

The supreme body of the UDPB is the Congress. It meets at least once every five years, elects a Central Council and a Central Auditing Commission, hears reports on their work and sets the general guidelines for the Union's activity and its tasks in the period until the next Congress.

The governing body between congresses is the Central Council which meets at least twice a year. It elects a president, vice-presidents (2), and members of the board, who guide the activities when the Central Council is not in session. The president and the vice-presidents organize and control the implementation of the decisions taken by the membership.

Editor's note: the above paper has not been edited.

Berliner Zentrum für Selbstbestimmtes Leben behinderter Menschen e.V.

Foundation and definition of our position

We disabled and non-disabled people, who have known each other since before 1989, founded the Berlin Center for Independent Living of Disabled People in March 1990. It is a non-profit organization and for half a year has been financially supported by the Berlin Senate of Health and Social Welfare.

The political changes which came about in our country in November 1989 made it possible for the first time for disabled people to found their own special groups and organizations; a freedom which they exercised. After studying the philosophy of the Independent Living Movement, we have decided to follow this direction because its tenets are important for us:

  • the right of self-determination
  • taking part in public affairs
  • training of self-consciousness
  • looking for, finding and teaching of personal assistants

First of all, we organized for a limited number of disabled people a social service with the help of community service - as an alternative to military service - to assist those persons with disabilities. Gradually we built up our Center for Independent Living and an advice center. Since March 1991 two of our members have been working through a job-creation-measure paid by the labour exchange!

Our work involves:

  • Peer support (the new social legislation causes a great insecurity among ourselves).
  • We find it worth striving for organizing personal assistance and functioning as employers of our own personal assistants.
  • We are thinking and working together with other CILs in Germany and Europe.
  • Twenty percent of our members are not disabled. This is a result of policy from the former GDR and the origins of our organization together with non-disabled people who we do not want to expel.
  • We want to provide a constellation of integrated IL services to enable people with significant disabilities to live on their own - independent from parents or institutions.

Club Contacts, Moscow

Ekaterina Kim

In the tremendous changes in the Russian political, economic and social structure there has been some progress in the situation of persons with disabilities. An increasing number of us take an active part in our own affairs recognizing that we know our problems and their solutions best. On the downside, we have become the main objects of a rising charity movement where our problems are often used by people for their political winnings. The Russian people are very kind and generous and feel sorry for disabled persons. If a disabled person asks for help they would rush to do it, say pitiful words to you, bring you bread, help you about the house and in the streets. But a lot of these good-hearted people would be surprised, if you talked to them about our cultural and educational needs. We are called invalids. People think we live to survive, that all we need is merciful help, food and financial support. Realistically speaking we do not have many alternatives to charity at the moment. Yet we are trying to change the traditional distorted image of disabled persons that charities exploit.

Given our current economic crisis Independent Living programs lie in a distant future. One of the biggest obstacles is the inaccessibility of our built environment. Only two hotels in Moscow are accessible for disabled persons, to say nothing of shops, administrative buildings, cinemas, museums, libraries or concert halls. Houses are hostile to disabled people since they are decorated with stairs and stairs. For a long time our society has considered only the exterior of the architectural appearance of our towns and not the people who live there. This reflects the official attitude of the State towards its citizens. The slogan "the Soviet society is the society of harmonically developed and physically healthy people" resulted in the absolute isolation of disabled persons from society by making the built environment inaccessible for persons using crutches or wheelchairs.

Inaccessible architecture together with the absence of good wheelchairs and other devices for disabled people, inaccessible public transportation and the lack of cars (for example, my pension is 165 roubles per month, a car costs 18 000 roubles) deprive our disabled persons of their right to mobility, education, jobs and decent housing. Five years ago one could hardly see a disabled person outside. Now people with disabilities are coming out more often to take part in meetings and cultural events. Only very recently the public opinion has admitted the existence of people with disabilities.

Our Club was founded in March 1991. It consists of President, Soviet and Executive Board. The President, according to the Charter, must be a disabled person whom members elect for five years. The Soviet consists of 9 members, five of which are disabled persons. The Executive Board is comprised of 7 persons who can be disabled or nondisabled. The Club works for social, educational and vocational integration and creativity among disabled people.

The Club builds three safety zones around our disabled members. The first circle is made up by close friends whose helping hands do not make us feel humiliated, if we ask them for assistance in overcoming physical and other barriers. The second circle consists of friends of the first circle who are professionals of different kinds. They help us in the practical realization of our ideas. The third circle is our businessmen who sponsor some of our programmes and educate us in becoming financially independent. In our experience there are many people who are anxious to help us, all they need is knowledge about our needs. By involving them in our work we can integrate ourselves into society. The Club promotes contacts with other disability organizations, governmental and public institutions, enterprises, cooperatives, and religious organizations.

We have presently 60 active members who work with 295 families with disabled children and about 200 disabled persons of different ages. Parents take an active part in managing services since they are experts on the problems of disabled children. In working with children we offer nine special services.

  • Parent-to-parent services (educating parents, seminars, peer counselling)
  • Educational services (secondary education for children who fall out of mainstream education)
  • Medical-social services
  • Advocacy
  • Sports/rehabilitation services
  • Cultural and recreational services
  • Transport services (we call them "green services")
  • Information services
  • Personal assistance ("My dear nannie")

Many disabled children cannot attend regular school, they are taught at home. The quality of such home teaching leaves much to be desired. The Club provides tutors to disabled children and helps disabled adults to acquire professional skills. Disabled adults help disabled children adapt to their disability.

We have found support at the top. The Committee on Family Problems and Demographic Policy included the model into the State Programme. We hope it will become part of the official State policy thereby giving recognition that a disabled person is an equal citizen, a personality with all potentials and talents that can be developed and realized if there are equal opportunities.

Like other disabled peoples' organizations in our country, our club depends mainly on charity money. In the future we want to be economically independent by running our own businesses. We want to start joint ventures with disability organizations in other countries to sell goods produced by disabled people in Russia and to publish information for our people here. Our organizations in Russia need information and are thankful to our friends who kindly send it to us. We hope that with the helping hands of foreign colleagues and the information they share with us Russian organizations will soon join the Independent Living movement.

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