Monday, February 27, 2012

Disabilities in Macedonia

The meeting with Polio Plus (only in MK, the EN page is not working) was a bit different than my other meetings. I recently met a Political Officer at the Embassy who has been giving me some more contacts with NGOs. She had a meeting scheduled with Polio Plus, who I had been trying to meet with for about 2 months, and invited me along. This made for some different observations and discussions that I usually had. They were more direct in asking the US government for help, specifically stating that “we” should help them lobby. At the same time, they were much more critical of the current government and their actions regarding people with disabilities than many NGOs I had visited. I was able to learn most of what I would by myself. I might try to email them a few more questions soon. As I was typing this up, I realized that I actually learned more about how disabilities are treated in MK than I did about Polio Plus, so this is more about that than the organization (thus the reason I am putting it on my travel blog and waiting to publish it on my research blog!).  

They had one of the larger offices that I had seen in Skopje. The had one large office room/entry way where there were three desks and a seating area set up, then there were two smaller rooms off to the side, with a conference room in the back. We met in the conference room.

They tend to focus on policy implementation and legislative changes, rather than services to the people. They do help those who are disabled fight for their legal rights. They do provide some services, such as mediation in the labor market, providing legal advice (such as how to make complaints), and helping them write business plans.

They are mainly funded from international organizations or embassies. The funds are small for NGOs in MK especially if you are focused solely on one issue. Even further, disability is lower on the funding tier in all locations, according to Polio Plus. Disabilities have received some funds from the state, roughly 2 million Euros, but it only goes to the older Union of Disabilities that was set up by the state. In the Union of Disabilities, there are 7 separate organizations that provide services to the disabled. The regulations, however, are from the Yugoslav era. The funding also only goes to the traditional organizations that use the medical approach.

Like in the US and elsewhere, disabilities still face harsh discrimination. Although in MK people with disabilities are almost all treated as if they are “crazy” or “have something wrong” or “aren’t normal and need to be excluded from daily life.” There is a law on discrimination that, according to Polio Plus, is actually discriminatory. In order to be hired as a manager or someone above the bottom level of employment, you have to be tested if you have a disability. The person with a disability, be it mental or physical, has to prove that they are mentally capable by going to a medical commission that examines their ability to work. All people with a disability are grouped together, in the guise of protecting those with mental disabilities.

There is no “gate-keeping” for disability status in MK. Almost any one can be declared disabled. The government then provides a subsidy for the disability (roughly 7,000 MKD/month minimum[$150]). However, with all of the “extras” that people might qualify for, they could end up getting 15-16,000 MKD/month [$318-340]. This is a decent salary in MK, and thus provides no incentive for them to go out and search for work on their own, especially if they are employed at all (even part time), they only get the lower 7,000 plus their salary.

Polio Plus submitted the first (and only so far) Citizen’s Initiative law to the MK parliament. It was essentially a law to retrofit all building to make them handicapped accessible. In order to do this, you have to get 10,000 signatures. To get these, you can’t just sign them with a notary, oh no, you have to go into your local governmental office with an official register and sign there after proving that you are who you say you are. They submitted this law a while ago, but there has been no movement on it in the Parliament. The word is that this law would be too expensive to implement, so they aren’t voting on it.

In the years that Polio Plus has been around (12), there has been a change in the attitudes of people towards those with disabilities, but it is slim to none. The example they gave, is that if in 1991 those with disabilities were considered at step 1 to the rest of society being at step 5, now they are at 5 while the rest of society is at 10.They were trying to show that while changes have been made, those with disabilities are still the last considered group of people. Many people here do not have a creative mentality, and they believe that change is taking too long to occur. While many work to solve the issues that people with disabilities face, no real progress is being made. There has been a shift from institutionalization to community based care, but not enough of one.

They claimed that almost no one is motivated to learn to work with those with disabilities because it takes too much work. There is some training available, but mostly it is in the medical approach. (which is a way of thinking about “what they can NOT do” rather than what the CAN do. According to BFI’s educational resources, the medical approach sees the disabled people as the problem. That the people who are disabled need to be adapted to fit in the world as it is, and if this isn’t possible, they need to be hidden. I had to look this up as I was not quite sure what she meant by the medical approach).

They have tried to work closely with different Members of Parliament, and different governmental bodies, but the others often do not want to work with those with disabilities (they don’t make as good of a picture story). Polio Plus isn’t sure how to change the system. They have to be extra cautious on how they try to change things.

There is also a group of companies called “Shelter Companies” (this lead to a bit of miscommunication in the beginning of the description), because they “shelter” those who are disabled. In these companies they must meet a few regulations: have a minimum of 10 people working, with 4 of them with disabilities. They must also keep the people with disabilities employed for 3 years, and in the second company where the person is hired, they have to be employed for 5 years. They get the following benefits as a way of getting companies to hire more people with disabilities:
  • they don’t have to pay taxes for any of the people working for them
  • The state can pay between 20-100% of the salaries in the form of a grant (less common)
  • The companies do not pay the profit taxes.
  • The customs fees are free
  • they get reimbursed for 10,000 MKD for equipment.
  • The social packages are covered by the government for all workers

The companies can request this after 9 months of employing the people with disabilities. Mainly the companies in graphics and printing take advantage of this program. However, there is a large scale abuse in this program. There is a commission that has to determine if you meet the standards for receiving this aid, and it is staffed by those who are connected. They often run the companies that are already receiving this aid and therefore have no desire to allow more companies into this special tax zone.

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