Challenging the Stigma of Disability in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Challenging the Stigma of Disability in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Dec 18, 2019

Last month, a huge protest took place in Sarajevo after disturbing pictures surfaced showing young residents of the Pazaric Residential Institution tied to their beds, chairs, and radiators. For People in Need, which works with beneficiaries in Bosnia and Herzegovina, this unfortunate incident is a chance to refocus attention on how societies can better integrate those disabilities.

In many parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, institutions like Pazaric are considered the only option for people with intellectual disabilities to live. PIN is working hard to change this assumption, because we believe that through deinstitutionalization, care can be transformed and residents can be reintegrated back into their communities.

Watch the shocking story from Pazaric by Al Jazeera Balkans

Since 2016, PIN Bosnia and Herzegovina, together with our local partner SUMERO, has been working to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities in the country. Our efforts has focused on preventing new institutionalizations and resettling those already there to smaller independent living units.

To date, about 100 beneficiaries have been relocated as part of the program. One of them is Miladinka Popovic. When comparing life in an institution to her current home in the town of Zenica, she says: "It is different. Now I don't need to ask anybody's permission to go to a store or for a walk. When I feel like going for a walk, I just go. I also enjoy cooking, something I did not have an opportunity to do during my time in the institution."

For 20 years, Miladinka lived in a large, government-run social-care facility, where residents have few individual freedoms. But in 2018, she had the opportunity to move out. At first, she spent three months in a SUMERO adaptive unit, and was then given approval to move to Zenica, where she lives with some support. It’s been a year since the move, and so far, things are going great.

With these successes to point to, People in Need has now begun a new initiative, called the “Our Voices” campaign, which aims to raise awareness for the rights and conditions of people with disabilities. In this project, beneficiaries work with students from the Faculties of Law, Psychology, Journalism, and Social Work at University of Sarajevo and University of Banja Luka to promote deinstitutionalization and improve legal protections. The campaign’s theme – “I decide” – is paired with simple and direct messages, such as, “I decide when and with whom I want to have a coffee,” and “I decide where and with whom I want to live.”

Zlatan Horo, a program beneficiary, told the local CNN channel affiliate: “I want my friends, who also have disabilities, to live like me in the community, independently and with assistance. I have a good life, I can decide where I want to go, sometimes our assistant comes with me, but usually I go by myself or with friends.”

Together with SUMERO, People in Need is working to help more people like Zlatan take control of their lives.

“Institutional care for persons with disabilities is still prevalent in our country. The deprivation of legal capacity is still widely used in practice,” says Sanja Lepic, PIN’s project manager. “This is a gross violation of human rights and we need to move away from this as much as possible and establish more humane, inclusive forms of care, such as community living with support or decision making with support.”

One of the students participating in the campaign is Angelia Popovic. For her, the issue is critical. “Persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities are neglected in our society; they are on the margins of society and we, young people, can contribute to increasing awareness of the importance of inclusion of persons with disabilities in society.”

She added: “I am glad that when people talk about [this issue], they recognize that persons with intellectual disabilities have the right to work and have a social life, and not to be isolated.”

While PIN and its partners have made progress to ensure that those with special needs can live a humane and happy life, much work remains. Although 100 people were deinstitutionalized or prevented from entering institutions in 2019, thousands more were not so lucky. Moreover, deinstitutionalization is implemented in only four of 10 cantons in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The project, “Our Voices – Advocacy for the rights of persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities in BiH,” is trying to improve these figures. It is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic through the TRANSITION program.

Author: Judith Kiers, Sanja Lepic