Croatians are proud of their disability policy. A disability ombudsman who has a disability has been appointed and accessibility and legislation are on the right track. A law on personal assistance will take effect in 2010.
Croatia is the next country on the path to join the EU. It was the third country to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the fourth country in the ratification process. In July this year, 32-year-old Anka Slonjšak began working as ombudsman for disabilities, directly answerable to Parliament.
“She has a degree in business and is a member of my organization,” says Manda Knezevic, who chairs the disability organization HUPT. She is visiting Stockholm along with Marica Miric to celebrate ILI 's 25-year anniversary.
Marica Miric works as a senior advisor at the national umbrella organization SOIH with ten national member organizations and 300 local divisions.
Manda and Marica are largely satisfied and pleased with recent developments in their country.
“We’re proud of our country. The disability movement in our country is strong.”
The history of the organization follows the traditional path found worldwide, from its founding in the 1960s to the UN years in the 1980s, up to the transition from a medical to a social approach to disabilities.
According to a 2005 report from the European Disability Forum (EDF), the language of the Croatian disability movement is completely modern, but the situation is described as contradictory. Few of the leaders have disabilities and SOIH’s own office is not accessible. Chairman Zorislaw Bobus is a medical doctor who does not have a disability. EDF’s responsible in Croatia for 2006 and 2007 was the Swede Ingemar Färm, who requested information within many areas of society and argued in favor of a general welfare policy. The EDF and Handicap International ran the Cards Project and worked with education and organizational development in the Croatian disability movement.
According to Manda Knezevic, the accessibility project has been successful. Low-floor buses are rolling in Zagreb, along with accessible Croatian-built trams. Three other cities have low buses, but some problems remain in service provided between cities. At this time, railway cars are put in service when someone orders them, but the trains purchased now will be fully accessible. “Construction laws are also good now,” says Marica.
“But the implementation could be better.”
Even the media do a pretty good job in Croatia, according to Manda and Marica.
“We have good relationships with some of the media and they don’t just write sensational articles, they also cover real situations,” says Manda.
Accessibility to buildings and traffic were requirements for a self-determined life, a foundation to build on, according to Manda. Now, when this is on the right track, efforts to achieve personal assistance have gained momentum. In Croatia there is no tension between the disability movement and the ideas promoted by the Independent Living movement.
“The Independent Living approach has been around for a long time,” says Marica. “We’ve incorporated it into the different organizations.”
A pilot project developed after a study visit to Bremen was headed by Horst Frehe. In Heidelberg they met several people with disabilities, and realized that national service inductees could serve as assistants. Specifically, conscientious objectors were offered the opportunity to work as personal assistants. The Croatian pilot project lasted five years, but is now closed, partly because the army no longer recruits in the same way as in the past.
In 2006, a new pilot project began through the Ministry of families, veterans' affairs and intergenerational solidarity; 76 users grew to 178 in 2007 and to 338 users in 2008—a 100% increase each year.
The umbrella organization for the organizations for people with disabilities has been a key partner, providing training to assistance users. They learn to become better employers, managers and trainers of assistants.
But education is not the most important part, it’s how to behave, according to Manda and Marica. Assistance users do their own recruiting, while the disability organizations do the hiring. Assistants are often students or women over 40 who otherwise find it difficult to get a job.
At first, some relatives objected to having assistants wandering around their homes, but after a few months, they discovered that assistance allowed them to have more free time.
“More freedom for all involved parties,” says Manda.
But in order for assistance to work and be accepted, two barriers must be broken down, according to Manda and Marica. First people have to accept that a stranger comes into their lives and then the family has to accept having a stranger in the home.
An assistant law is now being prepared and next year Parliament will vote. It may come into force in 2010. Once again, Manda and Marica are calm.
“We have a good relationship with the politicians, they listen to us,” they say. It’s like a partnership.
A government committee similar to the Swedish Handicap delegation meets four times a year. A relationship was established with the current Prime Minister long before she became a member of the government. The philosophy of the government does not really matter, according to Manda and Marica. They describe the current government philosophy as center but leaning to the right.
What are the most important priorities today?
“Now we’re going to implement the UN Convention and work to achieve a national anti-discrimination law,” says Manda Knezevic and Marica Miric, as they hurry to the next seminar. They don’t want to miss the opportunity to learn from good experiences offered from all directions.
Manda Knezevic and Marica Miric were interviewed by Emil Erdtman on Nov. 29, 2008