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9 September 2014

BUCHAREST, Romania – Being disabled in Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu was a harrowing affair. Back in the 1980s, people with disabilities were mostly hidden away in the country’s infamous care homes, where they were treated with shocking inhumanity.

Despite the fact that Romania has been an EU member state for almost eight years, this abusive treatment still goes on within remote facilities for those living with mental disabilities. Even in the capital Bucharest, people with disabilities are faced with discrimination and accessibility issues on a daily basis.

In 2013, Romania recorded 700,736 persons with disabilities, which represents 3.48 per cent of the population. Over 80 million people, or approximately 16 per cent of the total EU population, have a disability (from mild to severe, including people with mental-health issues). The unemployment rate among people with disabilities is two times higher than unemployment among others, while the poverty rate is 70 per cent above average.

EU legislation should ensure that people with disabilities can live independently and with ‘inherent’ dignity. Accessibility is one basic prerequisite through which people with disability can claim to be properly integrated within society – the ability to move comfortably from home to school, to their jobs, to use appropriate technology and adaptations, and to participate in an unrestricted social life.

The importance of accessibility is clearly recognized at EU level, which has made a ‘barrier-free Europe’ one of its goals for 2020.

Out and about in Bucharest

Despite the EU’s accessibility aims, the current state of public access in Bucharest shows how people with disabilities are explicitly excluded in many ways.

While it’s rare to see a suitably adapted kerbstone for wheelchair users, it is common to see people hurtling themselves down busy roads alongside cars, or wheeling their chairs over large cross-sections, as the pavements either side of many crossings are too high or ill-adapted to accommodate them. Cars are often parked on pavements and crossings are seldom fitted with sound aides for the blind. Lampposts can be found punctuating the middle of narrow walkways, and large drains lie open on pavements, with holes up to a metre deep.

A recently installed ramp at the block of flats where I live in Bucharest is a fine example of botched and rushed attempts to rectify this type of access issue: the ramp’s steepness makes it impossible for a wheelchair user to mount it safely or independently, and it would be dangerous to descend even with help.

Many of the city’s communist-style buildings were not designed to cater for people with disabilities (nor with the foresight of future EU accession). By law, public and private institutes now have to improve access, yet the capital remains a hostile place for those living with disabilities, and the law is often ignored.

‘There are no more than 100 [crossings in Bucharest] accessible for wheelchairs,’ says Matei Ghigiu, a wheelchair user who lives in Bucharest. The only places which [consistently] have disabled access according to the law are the shopping malls, because they came with foreign [investment and] infrastructure. We wheelchair users are used to this poor access because we live here, but it’s not a friendly city for us. Trips that you could do in 20 minutes in other European cities take you up to two hours here.’

Who’s in charge?

Officialdom is rarely brought to account, but this summer, the National Council for Combating Discrimination (NCCD) fined all bar two of Romania’s city halls for poor disabled access on public transport.

An NCCD spokesperson said that such a situation ‘creates an atmosphere humiliating disabled people’.

The NCCD was founded in 2010, when Romania ratified a UN Convention regarding the rights of people with disabilities. It was to be a national mechanism for the implementation of a plan to improve conditions for people with disabilities; such a plan has, however, yet to materialize.

‘Poor accessibility makes it hard for people [with disability] to find jobs, because even if you find a job, you probably won’t have access from your work to your home, and home to work; that’s why [Romania’s] employment rate for people with disabilities is among the lowest in Europe,’ says Matei.

He explains that there are also cases where public institutes put in place measures to improve disabled access, yet fail to uphold its functionality.

‘Last year, elevators were installed at most of the metro stations in Bucharest, but inside the metro there are different levels with more steps, so they put in some electrical ramps – which can’t be used independently – and most of them are either not working, or, if they are, you push a button which sounds an alarm somewhere, but nobody ever comes.’

In 2011 and 2012, the National Agency for Payments and Social Inspections issued a total of 167 fines, worth $310,000 against businesses that had failed to provide adequate disabled access. Forty-two per cent of the fines were given to private entities: mostly banks, pharmacies, hotels and taxi companies.

Time for a change

The wider Romanian community is also fed up with the poor public access in and around Bucharest. A ‘City March for People Access’ took place this summer, with 500 demonstrators, of whom about half were people with disabilities.

Dan Perjovschi, a Romanian political and satirical artist, designed the lead banner for the march. The sign read ‘Fara bordURA’, which translates as both ‘without kerbstones’ and ‘without hate’.

A new NCCD proposal states that four per cent of the state budget should go towards improving access for people with disabilities, with a construction inspectorate appointed to check public buildings and fines for those who don’t comply with the law.

Romania must work hard to remove the many issues people with disability face, and encourage their independent living. Everyone should be able to carry out common tasks such as using public transport, obtain information from public institutions, move around safely, and maintain their duties in work and education – indiscriminately.

Handing out fines rather than ensuring action to rectify the problem appears to be the easier option for the Romanian government, but it is not acceptable for a democratic EU state.