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“It will take not less than 20 years to forget about institutions for disabled in Belarus”


Not so long ago in Belarus information campaign “Inclusion of persons with disabilities to local community” has started; it promotes the concept of independent living outside institutions. Because we have just started we should consider the possibility to get acquainted with the experience of foreign countries and to choose the best practices for our country. Today we will talk with a social worker of the Danish organization “European House” Line Petersen.

- When and how did Denmark manage to get rid of institutions for disabled, closed institutions of social support?

It was 1944 when the state decided to close the institutions. Guidelines had changed and the state decided to return disabled people to local communities. Before 1944 the state was responsible for all the disabled in the country but that year became the key point when the authorities understood that it is necessary to deal with issues of social support at regional level. In the beginning of the 60th there were no large institutions in the country. Then it was decided to define who can live independently without assistance and who should live in special communes with the support of specialists and the authorities began to build small houses for disabled people. But you shouldn’t imagine that instead of some large institution smaller ones were built. The whole system had changed. In large institutions there were only doctors and nurses and here we have social workers who teach a person to live independently. The image of a person with disability had changed: he wasn’t considered a sick person anymore and the authorities were thinking of what kind of support he lacks in order to live independently.

- It means that the role of local community which has to render assistance at different levels and different spheres had grown…

Yes, local authorities became fully responsible for people with special needs. They are responsible now for the educational, healthcare and social support systems. Of course there are some NGOs at local level which work with people with disabilities, but still there is a common platform on the basis of which local authorities and NGOs cooperate.

According to the law local authorities have to organize meetings with local citizens to discuss these special needs. As a rule such meetings are held on a monthly basis. It promotes the development of the environment in accordance with the needs of people with disabilities: accessible buildings are built and wishes and peculiarities of citizens are taken into account during reconstruction of building, roads etc.

- Does it mean that today people with disabilities in your country live completely independently in local community?

In places where people with disabilities live there are trainers who help them to live independently. Not more than 10 people live in one house. There is a social worker there who can help you 24/7 if you need. In any case a person with disability has his own place of living – one or two rooms, kitchen, toilet and bathroom. If there is any physical impairment the room will be equipped in a proper way. It is an interesting fact that if a person needs additional assistance, for example for buying groceries, a person with disability puts an advertisement in a newspaper that he is looking for a social worker and then holds auditions to choose one. But unfortunately employment in local community is still one of the most topical issues.

- Did you work in other countries sharing Denmark’s experience?

Yes, we had such an experience in Romania in the 90th. Only after social legislation had been changed and social workers underwent a lot of trainings people with disabilities started to leave institutions. But if to evaluate the whole process that had started 20 years ago the results are not so positive. Changes in the nation’s mentality are needed. May be because Romania is one of the poorest countries in Europe there are a lot of other problems that have to be solved.

It seems to me that we have to continue holding information campaigns in order to see positive changes. Today we can do it better – we use TV to show documentaries. Give information in public transport. It is important to break informational vacuum which exists in every country even in Denmark. For example, several days ago a local newspaper published an article about a blind person with a dog who wasn’t allowed to enter a restaurant. People were so impressed with the information that they stopped visiting the restaurant. It is very important to have such examples which will be discussed by public. Especially it is important at local level when you see that your neighbor wasn’t allowed to eat at a restaurant than you take it closer to your heart…

- How long do you think we’ll have to wait for positive changes in Belarus?

20 years. The main thing is to introduce changes to the legislation so that a person who manages to leave an institution could live independently and wouldn’t become a “big baby” in his family. In order to do it you have to work with people who make decisions, for example invite them to Denmark for experience exchange. May be it would be enough just to ask them several questions: “How would you feel if you have to return to live with your parents? Will it be considered an independent life? Would you like to return to childhood to you mom and dad?” It is necessary to ask them these questions. It is necessary for people who are responsible for decision-making to think more. Now in Kobrin we have launched a pilot project and we will see what people with disabilities need and what services they need. But there is still a lot to do.

- What did you teach to social workers in Kobrin?

Master-classes were devoted to a new method of teaching people with disabilities how to live an independent live. It is necessary to imagine a usual day of such a person and divide it into small parts. A person wakes up, washes, takes a shower, finds food, eats breakfast and goes somewhere. It is necessary to teach a social worker to understand these small practical things which later they will teach to people with disabilities. Every worker, depending on the peculiarities of his ward, should prepare an individual program which will let him live independently. Such program is adapted for every concrete person; you cannot make one universal system fitting everyone. By the way, it is an innovation for Belarus. In your country you do the following way: you have the list of duties everyone should follow and can’t make any changes. And innovations are that social teachers personally create and test a program understanding which elements work and which don’t.

And the most important thing I want to mention is that you don’t have to be a social teacher to help people with disabilities to live independently! It is always important to remember that there is no need to do something for a person with disability what he can do by himself!