Betim Bregovina did not take a summer vacation last year. Instead, five times a week he attended a course for business administration at the Vocational Training Center in Prishtina.
The nature of the course revived an old dream of his, forgotten over the years — the wish to become a children’s toys manufacturer.
Yet, 32-year-old Betim is not confident that his persistence will translate into success. Though he has invested many years in education and submitted endless job applications, he has never been called for an interview.
Why? Betim is disabled. He has been blind since birth and says that he fears he is discriminated against because of this.
Betim has been a student four times in the last 10 years. He initially completed a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and General Pedagogy at the University of Prishtina (UP), and continued his education pursuing a Master’s degree in the School of Psychology and Counseling. Now, he attends lectures for his second Master’s at UP in General Pedagogy.
From his home in Mazgit in the Municipality of Obiliq, he often travels to Prishtina accompanied by his sister. Despite his disability, Betim says his experience attending university is no different than anyone else’s, except when it comes to the way he processes the lectures.
“Ever since the first day I became a student, I’ve always recorded the lectures with my IC recorder, and then I listen to them,” he says. “When I have seminar papers or other homework to hand in, I work with colleagues who help me to finish them in time.”
Betim completed both his Bachelor and Master’s degrees with outstanding marks, and his high grades were another reason he felt optimistic that he would one day be employed as a school or prison psychologist.
“They are professional profiles which, in one way or another, deal with education,” Betim says. “I think I’m qualified to work in these areas, in schools or prisons, because there is a lot of need there.”
Betim says that he looks into every job vacancy announcement that aligns with his professional qualifications. He’s applied for jobs in teaching, school psychology, social work and as a prison psychologist.
Showing his applicant’s testimony, he recounts how he applied several times in the municipality of Prishtina alone. “They never even called me for an interview,” he says.
Unfortunately, his experience seeking employment is not uncommon for a blind person in Kosovo.
Daut Tishuku is chairman of the Kosovo Association of the Blind. According to Tishuku, there are an estimated 2,500 blind people in Kosovo, but only about 30 to 35 of them have employment. This is despite the Law on Vocational Ability, Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities obliging every employer to employ one disabled person in every fifty employees.
“You can count on your fingers the number of blind people employed in Kosovo,” says Tishuku. “Although they have completed their education and there are blind people with scientific degrees, their employment rate is really alarming. Four are employed in the School for the Blind in Peja and more in associations.”
For Betim, the society’s prejudice against people with disabilities in Kosovo remains one of the biggest problems they face. According to him, it is this prejudice that results in a lack of employment opportunities.
“It is often said that [disabled people] are not able to do the job, that they were given high grades out of charity, that they are not professional, and the like,” Betim says. “Often, when a person with a disability goes to an institution, they are asked: ‘How are you? Are you worried?’ Worried about what? That’s where the prejudice starts.”
Marigona Përvetica, a student in her final year of studying law, agrees with Betim and believes that enrooted social prejudice leaves little room for improvements for people with disabilities, even in the future.
Raised in a family of lawyers, her interest in law came about at a very young age. Marigona is a person of short stature, and it was the injustices against people with disabilities that helped the 25-year-old decide on her vocation.
“People are discriminated against in Kosovo due to their appearance,” she says. “[Society] does not look at a person’s qualities, regardless of what they know or what they are able to do; they look at one’s appearance. And people with disabilities are the ones who need motivating words the most.”
Marigona believes that being prejudged on appearance takes place across different spheres of employment in Kosovo. “It happens in the private sector, but I have heard of many cases in the public one, too. They tell you, ‘come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow,’ just to get you out of there. And the outcome is known: you never get hired.”
She says she has completed a few internships, including at the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration. However, none of those internships ever translated into a job offer.
“Maybe it’s because I did not finish college yet, but my internship never continued for more than a month and I was never hired,” she says. “I did not even think about it, because I know from what I hear that you do not get hired without connections.”
While waiting to exercise her calling to fight for the rights of people with disabilities, a second dream is on the verge of becoming a reality. She is utilizing her passion for acting in a role in a movie currently filmed in Albania, called “Under the Shadow of the Sun.”
“Acting is, in a way, helping me feel more like myself than my daily life is,” she says. “When I was a little girl, I dreamed of becoming an actress. I’ve always watched movies, and I still do. Often, I would compare myself with actresses and imagine myself in their shoes.”
Marigona does not know if acting will become her first career choice over law, but she continues to enthusiastically take part in the final shoots for the film. What she does know is that for many people with disabilities, a dependence on financial support makes it more difficult to achieve set goals.
“The main problem I see is the [lack of both] employment and social assistance for people with disabilities in Kosovo,” she says. “People with disabilities need to be employed, they need support.”
Underrepresented and Overburdened
The 2011 census stated that there were around 73,000 people with disabilities in Kosovo. However, HandiKOS director Afrim Maliqi believes this does not even come close to the real number.
The World Health Organization estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the global population have a disability, while the European Disability Forum states that the number of people affected by a single disability within a population can reach up to 10 percent. Taking the figure of 10 percent and applying it to the Kosovar population would give a figure of around 170,000, which Maliqi believes is much more realistic.
“Unfortunately, the exact number of persons with disabilities is still unknown in Kosovo because the institutions never take it seriously,” Maliqi says.
Such data and statistics are important, as they help in drafting relevant policies. Yet in Kosovo, social support continues to exclude many people with disabilities and their carers from various forms of aid, including financial. Consequently, the burden falls on family members who accompany their close ones throughout their daily activities, including going to school or work.
Even when laws guarantee financial compensation, the amount remains minimal for many categories of people with disabilities and their carers. For example, for persons in the first category of blindness — those with complete loss of sight — the Law for Blind Persons prescribes a financial compensation of at least 100 euros. The law also provides compensation for the carer, in Betim’s case, his sister.
According to Tishuku, the blind person and their carer usually receive 125 euro each, totaling 250 euros. “In Kosovo, there are about 1,500 people categorized in the first group of blindness who [receive money because of] this right,” says Tishuku.
However, according to the Law on Blind Persons, persons who receive compensation due to blindness cannot be beneficiaries of any compensation from other applicable pension schemes in Kosovo. Tishuku explains that this mainly affects people over 65 years old, who have to choose between receiving compensation for blindness and the right to an age contribution-payer pension.
Such compensation and other forms of financial support are of particular importance when considering that most people with disabilities are excluded from the labor market. In this regard, activists for the rights of persons with disabilities constantly emphasize the fact that they are deprived of participation in social, political, cultural and economic life, and that their participation in different spheres of life remains quite a challenging issue.
For Maliqi from HandiKOS, persons with disabilities in Kosovo are among the poorest and most vulnerable groups in the country.
“They are poorer as they have limited financial resources, and lack daily or monthly services provided to them, meaning there is a range of services that the state authorities do not provide them with,” he says. “They are at risk because they lack such services.”
Maliqi sees prejudice as a constant problem, which he says comes from all sides, including general society and employers in cases when people with disabilities apply for a job. “Referring to the anti-discrimination law, we see that, in our country, people with disabilities are discriminated against. [They are] without services, without infrastructure or access, without employment and only a small number of them are integrated into society,” Maliqi says.
Head of the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo, Hilmi Jashari, says the problem is in the system rather than in individual cases. He believes that people with disabilities suffer discrimination throughout their lives.
“As children, they have problems accessing schools, and then comes the in-school treatment,” Jashari says. “Other benefits, such as carers, are not provided by the authorities, so they are a burden to their own families and, in fact, it’s the authorities that are obliged to provide them. They are accompanied by such problems until they retire. When they retire, they have problems of a different nature: they do not enjoy two pensions, they need to report frequently to the ministries and face other issues that make their life difficult.”
In order to put an end to the chain of problems that accompany people with disabilities throughout their lives, activists engaging for the rights of this community put an emphasis on the improvement of infrastructural access and increased employment opportunities in order to enable their participation in public life. However, it will take greater efforts on a societal level for people with disabilities to be able to fully integrate into public life.
People with Disabilities Rarely Welcomed
Despite institutional and legal mechanisms meant to support people with disabilities in their quest for employment finding work remains one of the key challenges facing the disabled community. Data from the Employment Agency portrays a very grim picture of employment in Kosovo for those with disabilities: in 2017, out of the 470 people registered in the agency, only 18 were employed.
Bujar Morina is one of the ‘lucky ones’ to have found work. Morina is employed by the Kosovo Assembly, the highest law-making institution in the country, where he has worked as an administrative assistant since 2016.
In the past, the 50-year-old had worked as an engineer for various companies and organizations, but 11 years ago, an unlucky accident left Bujar in a wheelchair. In his last job before the accident, he was employed by a private Swiss company in Kosovo as a water researcher in the region of Ferizaj and Gjilan.
In 2007, Bujar suffered a serious car crash, and injured two of the vertebrae in his neck. Unable to return to work, he remained unemployed for more than nine years. His wife, a preschool teacher, was left to support him and their two children.
“I would not like to see anybody go through what I have, but I have a strong will for life and I’ve managed to overcome it,” Bujar says. “In 2016, I saw the job announcement, in fact my wife did, and together with my children, she insisted I applied. To tell you the truth, I was hesitating at first, not knowing if I could do the job. But I applied, and although I waited for some five or six months after the interview, I was hired.”
The open application in the Assembly of Kosovo was especially for people with disabilities, which proved to play a major role in his family’s belief that he should apply.
Bujar Kadriu, Chairman of the Kosovo Disability Forum, says that the modification of job vacancy applications for persons with disabilities is regulated by the Law on Vocational Ability, Rehabilitation and Employment of People with Disabilities, which the Kosovo Assembly finally adopted at the end of 2008, and provides a quota to secure employment for employees with disabilities at companies with more than fifty employees.