Romania, no country for the disabled

Newsroom 04/04/2011 | 11:47

People with disabilities seem often to be overlooked by the Romanian state. In a country where just walking can be a hazardous undertaking even for those with full sight and mobility, one can only imagine how difficult it must be to survive on a daily basis for the mobility or visually impaired. The problems facing disabled citizens are countless. BR talked to representatives of NGOs, the Labor Ministry and public transport companies, as well as psychologists and HR specialists, to shine a light on the hidden issue of disabled Romanians.

Corina Dumitrescu

At the end of last year, 689,680 people were registered disabled at Romania’s General Direction for the Protection of People with Handicaps (Directiei Generale Protectia Persoanelor cu Handicap), according to Human Respect Solutions representatives, a company focusing on the integration of people with disabilities into the work force.

However, before he or she can even think of finding a job, a person with a disability stumbles across the everyday issues of public transport, for example. How are subway operator Metrorex and the Bucharest Autonomous Transportation Administration (RATB) making their networks accessible? RATB officials say that over 80 percent of their fleet comes with low floors and access ramps, including 1,000 Mercedes Citaro buses, 100 Irisbus Astra trolleybuses and 68 trams. Moreover, all the vehicles that are currently being built for RATB will be properly equipped, continue the company’s officials.

Metrorex, meanwhile, says general manager Gheorghe Udriste, is planning the installation of 83 interior and exterior elevators in 34 subway stations, to be completed by December. So far, Nicolae Grigorescu, 1 Decembrie 1918, Nicolae Teclu, Anghel Saligny, Gara de Nord 2 and 1 Mai subway station have such lifts in situ. Next on the list are Grozavesti, Politehnica, Republica, Petrache Poenaru and Gara de Nord 1.

All this sounds good on paper, but how do people with disabilities really cope with life in Bucharest and Romania? Young people and children with seeing and hearing difficulties are the NGO Light Into Europe’s main focus. Representative Alina Popescu told Business Review, “As the Romanian government continues its efforts to develop better social services for the general public, the visually impaired are a neglected demographic and have received very little support and assistance. Facilities providing services are old fashioned and under-equipped. The educational system has yet to respond to the needs of the sight impaired; educational materials are lacking and/or non-existent. As a result of a non-adapted educational curriculum, young Romanian blind people are given limited life prospects and opportunities.” 

Beyond the classroom, the visually impaired are faced with other challenges. Popescu quotes the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Disabled Persons Act in Romania, and a law for people with disabilities, the 448/2006 Law, which stipulate the right of disabled people to have a guide dog and unlimited access, meaning no limits or restrictions in the physical, informational and communicational environment.

However, although many were looking forward to the application of this law, she continues, once it happened, new obstacles emerged. “There is no free access to public transport with a guide dog – buses, trams, subway or taxis. There is no access to public institutions, shops, supermarkets or hotels with a guide dog. Conditions are also very difficult for the visually impaired – for instance, there is no sound at traffic lights, which prevents many blind people from traveling independently, and the streets are not safe for blind people to get around, with lots of holes, illegally parked cars and stray dogs.” These are, unfortunately, just a few of the issues confronting the visually impaired, and although all of them are referred to in the law, often the provisions are not applied.

According to official statistics, Romania is home to 23,176 people with hearing deficiencies, of whom 1,980 are children, and 117,797 visually impaired, of whom 3,466 are children. But the true numbers are a lot higher, says Popescu. In terms of access to education, children and young adults have a total of seven schools and high schools for the blind and 20 schools and high schools for the deaf. They may also be integrated into the mainstream education system.

State support consists of benefits paid to those with disabilities, continues Popescu, “but no services addressing the rehabilitation of those with sensorial disabilities, focusing on the development of independent life abilities, to allow them true social-professional integration and an independent and productive life.” Moreover, there is an urgent need for educational materials for children, as well as for the support equipment that they require, with the Light Into Europe Foundation currently being the sole supplier of such services.


Into the work force

Representatives of the County Employment Agency (Agentia Municipala pentru Ocuparea Fortei de Munca) say that people with disabilities are typically keen to find jobs and be treated just like everyone else. There is a general need for information and awareness raising programs aimed at civil society, as well as the major economic players, about the employment of disabled people. Integration can be improved through workplace assistance and flexible schedules, say agency representatives.

Human Respect Solutions, a recruitment company, has managed to integrate 150 people into the labor market through two of its projects, which are still under development. Oana Iancu of HRS says that the current legislation encourages this, as any company with over 50 employees has to hire people with disabilities, to make up at least four percent of its workforce. Companies that fail to do so have to pay a monthly tax or purchase products or services manufactured or provided by people with handicaps. There are also advantages for those hiring people with disabilities, such as tax and payment deduction facilities.

However, Iancu adds, hiring people with disabilities necessitates certain facilities that the employer must be willing to provide. “Types of disability involve workplace adaptations, not solely referring to the physical space, eg access ramps or flats surfaces over which wheelchairs may pass, but also specific job description, flexi-time and special equipment. The computer may need to be adapted as well, for example a voice program installed allowing staff with visual impairments to use it,” Iancu states. According to the statistics quoted by the HRS representative, in Romania there are currently 10,924 employees with somatic disabilities, 6,885 with physical ones, 3,417 with aural impairments, 3,097 with visual ones, 207 with HIV and 80 completely blind or deaf.

Iancu adds that dedicated job fairs for disabled jobseekers are held. However, although they often compete on the labor market against the able bodied, there are also jobs created especially for disabled staff.

Psychotherapist Daniel Pagu says facilitating access to the work force is not easy. “It’s very difficult for a person with a handicap to integrate on the labor market. This is due to external factors (employers’ attitude and mentality, the local community’s mentality, the family’s), as well as personal ones (the type of handicap and the jobseeker’s degree of motivation). I believe that in Romania there is a preconception that people with disabilities cannot carry out lucrative activities and even if they were employed, their efficiency would be low.”

He adds, “The optimal solution would be for disabled people to be supported first of all by their family and then be encouraged to develop their skills with the aim of finding a job.” Pagu says there are centers of evaluation and integration for this purpose which he recommends. He calls for job descriptions to be adapted to suit people’s skills, so that they may be better put to use.

However, another challenge, the psychotherapist continues, is changing employers’ mentality and work colleagues’ general attitude. Most disabled workers seek jobs for social purposes, to be part of a group, rather than for financial reasons. He gives the example of a company in Dublin, where employees with disabilities had the same status as everyone else, regular employees. In Romania, however, besides their physical or mental disability, people also suffer from “a social disability”, due to other people’s pity, compassion and general mistrust, under the assumption that a worker with a handicap will not be a productive and confident employee.

Still, there are success stories on the local market, says Pagu: “I have had cases in my practice where people with disabilities (albeit rather low-level ones) were integrated. A determining factor in their success was the understanding and acceptance of their employer and, more importantly, their own motivation to work.”

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