Thu, Dec 28, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Out of Serbia's asylum and into the living world

If Serbia can be praised for one thing, it is the way that people with mental disabilities have been given new lives

By Judith Klein and Dragan Lukic

Serbia -- long castigated as the land whose late president, Slobodan Milosevic, launched a genocide in Yugoslavia -- is not accustomed to finding itself lauded for safeguarding human rights. But in one area of human rights protection, the much-maligned Serbia has taken an unprecedented step that puts it ahead of all the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, including states already in the EU.

In September, Serbia's Ministry of Labor, Education and Social Affairs made it official policy to integrate into society thousands of people who had been locked away in Dickensian state institutions because they have a mental disability.

With this historic move, Serbia adopted a practice that took hold in the rich, Western countries after World War II but was never applied in the communist bloc.

It is anathema to the concept of a free society to segregate people solely on the basis of mental disability, to ignore their most basic human rights, to bar them from access to education and employment, to deny them the freedom to choose where and how they live and with whom they can associate.

The policy change aimed at rectifying this grim reality in Serbia came when the ministry agreed to apply a pilot project nationwide that has, since 2003, established a range of community-based support services to enable persons with intellectual disabilities to leave the institutions where they were confined and begin living in the wider world. That pilot project demonstrated that people with mental disabilities are capable of living as equal citizens when they receive appropriate assistance.

Based upon the project's success, the ministry has committed to purchasing more than 130 apartments and homes to house people brought out of institutions and to establish services to help them cope with the complexities of life beyond the walls that once confined them. Funding for the reforms comes from the privatization of state assets -- not from aid from abroad. To Serbia's credit, the ministry made the decision knowing that the change would require belt-tightening elsewhere, but it took action because it concluded that protecting human rights was more important than saving a few dinars.

Hopefully, Serbia's decision will inspire the other states of Central and Eastern Europe, including states that have won membership in the EU, to follow its lead. It is shocking that the EU has done so little to press its members and prospective members to promote community living for people with mental disabilities.

None of the new EU member-states has concrete plans or financing mechanisms to develop networks of community-based alternatives on a national scale. While there are pockets of high-quality, community-based services in most of the region's countries, tens of thousands of people with mental disabilities are still living in institutions, and most of them have no prospect of ever leaving.

Hungary continues to segregate its most disabled citizens and spend millions of dollars on the construction of a new institutional behemoth which sits empty because it does not meet EU fire and safety standards.

Croatia is demonstrating that deinstitutionalization is not a question of money. The Open Society Institute committed over US$2 million to assist the government in closing a large institution for people with intellectual disabilities. But, almost a year into the negotiations, the government is still not ready to commit to concrete action.

This story has been viewed 2964 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top