Croatia: Disenablement of Rights for People With Disabilities

More than 10,000 people with disabilities in Croatia live trapped in institutions, within a model of supports that fits the medical model which modern and functional democracies of the world have left behind some forty years ago, substituting it with a social model, normalising disability as an inclusive part of general community.

The destiny of people with disabilities in Croatian institutions “depends on the will of their guardians and social welfare centres who have in their names (in the name of people with disabilities) decided that life behind the locked doors of the institution is in their best interests. In institutions they are deprived of liberty, without having committed a criminal offence, spent most of their lives without the right to privacy and any personal choice…” says the 2017 Report by the Croatian Ombudsman’s Office for People with Disabilities (PDF).

The Report covers issues pertaining to rights and the lack of promoting and enabling the rights of people with disabilities, a decade after Croatia ratified the international disability rights treaty! Almost all people with disabilities living in Croatia are denied the right to make any decisions for themselves; their carers and others make choices for them!

The welfare and enabling people with disabilities to lead valued lives as part of the community and to make their own choices in life, be supported to make them, is a shift forward Croatia as a society is yet to make. A nation should be judged, among other things, by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. To think that Croatia has had and has hundreds of millions of Euro it could draw upon for disability services and deinstitutionalisation from the European Union funds, and has catastrophically failed to do so, so far, boggles the mind.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement toward deinstitutionalisation of those with intellectual and/or multiple disabilities in the US, in Canada, in Australia, in United Kingdom… This was a time of social change where people were beginning to see those with disabilities in a different light; when professionals and governments facilitated disability awareness campaigns within communities, all in the effort of encouraging people with disabilities to reach their potential and contribute to society. This contrasted with the previous view of disabled people as needing to be institutionalised in order to maintain order in mainstream society and it took a great deal of public relations campaigns to achieve positive results that these democracies enjoy today. As time went by various forms of Disability Inclusion Acts were enacted in parliaments and congresses – the spirit and word of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability found their way into all avenues that make a society, people with disabilities were being integrated into the society; disability was no longer considered an illness.

In Croatia the hold of the medical model where a disability is still considered by most as an illness simply shocks!

The medical model of disability regards disabled people as sick, passive people who – all they ever need – is to be fixed and cared for by health and ancillary health care professionals.

The social model of disability, however, does not mean that people with disabilities do not require medical and rehabilitation information and services, but it just changes the way disability is viewed. It simply means that disability is not narrowly assigned to the health sector alone, but it is placed in a wider framework, which takes a holistic view of the lives of persons with disabilities, and enables the removal of barriers in society, which make integration and access difficult. Croatia needs this social change, thus enrich its developing democracy!

In an April 2018 meeting with Human Rights Watch, the Croatian Ministry of Demographics, Family, Youth, and Social Policy promised to adopt a new plan to support community-based living for people with disabilities, including those in private institutions and family homes. In a May 22 letter to Human Rights Watch, however, the ministry said that people with disabilities who need long-term and intensive care will remain in institutions.

On May 21, the Croatian government published a draft Law on Foster Care that would prioritise placing adults with disabilities in foster care, including without their consent. According to the government, more than 2,455 adults with disabilities live in foster care.

People with disabilities needing long-term accommodation should not be placed in foster care as a solution to their placement. Foster home is not their home and people with disabilities should have their own home with staff support being employed to enable the dignity and freedom of having own home. The power of choice and needs should go to person with disability, not to employed carers. People with disabilities have the right to live independently with control over their lives and the ability to make individual choices with support as necessary. Any forced placement, even with a well-meaning family, should be ended.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantees the right for all people with disabilities to live independently and be included in the community, regardless of their disability, the presence of multiple disabilities, or the need for a high level of support. The freedom for individuals to make decisions and control their lives are essential to living independently. In December 2017, the Council of the European Union called on EU governments to ensure that everyone has the right to live independently within their community and to play an active part in society.

The 2017 report by the Croatian Ombudsman’s Office for People with Disabilities recognises and acknowledges the rights of people with disabilities and forthrightly points to the unacceptable state of affairs in the enablement of access to the rights under the UN Convention – in all walks of life: accommodation, education, healthcare, community access, community inclusion and integration, employment …

Measures of coercion are also being applied in some institutions, contrary to national law and the Convention, without conducting systematic monitoring over the implementation of these measures and sanctioning violators. Systematic placing of persons with disabilities into institutions against their own will, because they are not guaranteed the support or services to live in the community, represents their discrimination, i.e. segregation – is contrary to the principles of respect for the human rights of persons with disabilities and the institutions’ obligations for the responsibilities the state took when it ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities…” states the 2017 Ombudsman’s Office Report. Discrimination is unlawful.

So, I wonder, with unease, since the Ombudsman’s Office points to discrimination against people with disabilities will the powers that be in Croatia shrug their shoulders and say: “Ah well, it’s the system, it’s the regime that discriminates…” and not do much about it because it would rock the political boat, or will they get off their high-horses and build in independent monitoring, external checks and balances, deal with perpetrators of discrimination and make life for people with disabilities better? I look forward to seeing the latter.

Ina Vukic