Fellowship | Human Rights | In-depth | Disabilities

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By - 10.12.2018

From finding a job, to getting up stairs and accessing ATMs. This is life with a disability in Kosovo.

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.

Betim Bregovica has completed several years of higher education, has a Master’s degree and is working towards his second; but he’s never received a callback when applying for jobs. Photo: Arbër Murturi.

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.”

Marigona Përvetica says she has experienced discrimination because she is a person of short stature. Now, she’s pursuing a law degree to fight for people with disabilities. Photo: Arbër Murturi.

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.

Chairman of the Kosovo Association for the Blind Daut Tishukil says that out of an estimated 2,500 blind people living in Kosovo, only about 30 are employed. Photo: Arbër Murturi.

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.”

Afrim Maliqi, director of HandiKOS, says that the official count of people with living disabilities in Kosovo drastically underrepresents the reality. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha, K2.0 archives.

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.

Bujar Morina, was left in a wheelchair after an accident more than a decade ago, works for the Kosovo Assembly. The opportunity was advertised specifically for people with disabilities, which he said gave him the confidence to apply. Photo: Arbër Murturi.

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.

K2.0 sent questions to 12 major companies in Kosovo — Ipko, KEDS, VivaFresh, ElkosGroup, Elkoscender, the Devolli corporation, Birra Peja, Albi Center, Meridian Express, Trepharm, Neptune and Aztech — to inquire about the number of employees with disabilities. Only one replied.

According to Kadriu, all that the institutions, the government and other mechanisms need to do, is to implement the law. But he says that while such job applications create room for increased employment of persons with disabilities — as an affirmative measure to promote employment of a group who was historically discriminated against — the fact that they are separated may lead to further exclusion of people with disabilities from equal consideration during general public vacancies.

“In terms of employment, I think there should not be a special vacancy for people with disabilities; I do not support it, because I think vacancies should be open to all citizens and, within equal opportunities, they should prioritize people with disabilities,” says Kadriu. “I’m not advocating that they be hired with a sense of mercy, but in applications they should let this category show its value.”

But Bujar Morina, employed in the Assembly, strongly contests this, and believes that public institutions should create more job opportunities for people with disabilities, and that the government, the ministries and municipalities should follow the example of the Kosovo Assembly, as he knows the difference it can make.

Morina recounts that at the beginning of his employment he faced some difficulties adjusting because it took some time before the infrastructure was adapted to his needs, but that the problems were resolved.

“At first it was a bit of a problem, but in time things got sorted out. Now I have my car parking slot, the lift, a toilet fixed just for me, and even if my wife is not there to assist, I can go about on my own,” he says. “We just need to be given the opportunity to prove we can work too.”

The Assembly appears to be one of the only institutions that respect the Law for Employment of Persons with Disabilities. According to data obtained by K2.0, out of 183 employees, the Assembly employs seven people with disabilities.

The table above shows the number of employees with disabilities employed by each institution in comparison to that institution’s total employee count, and whether or not they have complied with the law. The data shown was requested by K2.0.

K2.0 has also obtained data on the number of persons with disabilities employed in the government, the presidency, the ministries and municipalities. The figures show that a considerable number of municipalities and ministries are far from meeting the legal obligation. In a written response to K2.0, the Tax Administration of Kosovo (TAK) claims it does not possess the number of persons declared in companies as having disabilities.

The table above shows the number of employees with disabilities employed by each ministry in comparison to that ministry’s total employee count, and whether or not they have complied with the law. The data shown is only of the 12 ministries out of 21 that responded to the request sent by K2.0.

The table above shows the number of employees with disability employed in each municipality in comparison to that municipality’s total employee count, and whether or not they have complied with the law. The data shown is only of the 20 municipalities that responded to K2.0. Requests were sent to all 33 municipalities.

Although the statement of employment in public institutions indicates non-compliance with employment law, K2.0 respondents claim that the greatest discrimination comes from the private sector.

Maliqi says that from his daily fieldwork he can identify up to 20 private companies employing persons with disabilities, either from HandiKOS recommendations or through their own volition. However, he has no official statistics on the matter.

K2.0 sent questions to 12 major companies in Kosovo — Ipko, KEDS, VivaFresh, ElkosGroup, ELKOScenter, the Devolli Corporation, Birra Peja, Albi Center, Meridian Group, Trepharm, Neptune and Aztech — to inquire about the number of employees with disabilities.

Only Meridian Group replied: “The general number of employers at Meridian Express is around 480 persons, but at the moment we don’t have any person with disabilities engaged. At our company a person with disability was employed at the Marketing Department and one from [the organization] Down Syndrome Kosova, but they left the job because of their personal reasons”.

According to the online database  “Open Businesses” created and managed by the Open Data Kosovo NGO, there are 279 medium-sized businesses (with 50 to 249 employees) and 77 major businesses (250+ employees) declared in the Kosovo Business Registration Agency, which means that 356 businesses employ more than 50 workers and should therefore, by law, employ at least one person with a disability. But, this is rarely the case.

Ombudsperson Jashari claims that annual reports of the institution he leads, addressing the discrimination of persons with disabilities in employment, are submitted to the Assembly of Kosovo.

“I can say with full responsibility that there is a huge discrepancy between the public and the private sector. This includes the conditions for employment and the rights these people have in the public and private sector,” says the Ombudsperson. “Also, the legal regulations make a big difference: for example, the public sector is regulated by several sub-legal acts and several laws, while the private sector is only regulated by one law, namely the Law on Labor. So, the system itself has an internal problem and then this produces the irregularities.”

While officials from the institutions suggest new policies will mitigate unemployment, for people with disabilities and their activists, the discrimination has already caused irreversible consequences.

The Chief Inspector at the Labor Inspectorate, Basri Ibrahimi, also asserts that the employment law is not being implemented. Although the Labor Inspectorate has no accurate statistics, Ibrahimi says that private companies might be more disrespectful of the law than the public ones.

“Unfortunately, so far there has not been good implementation, because there were large gaps for the employers to utilize, and thus the Labor Inspectorate was unable to push things forward,” Ibrahimi says. “The Law prescribed the penalties, but the procedures were not clear, such as where to pay, for how many people, and so on.”

For the law to be implemented and the Labor Inspectorate to impose fines on employers who do not observe it, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare [MLSW] on August 22 of this year, adopted an Administrative Instruction on the Ways, Procedures and Deadlines of Monthly Payments for Employers who do not Hire Persons with Disabilities. Article 4, point 4, of this Administrative Instruction obliges employers to pay an amount equal to the minimum wage to the MLSW, if they do not employ one person with disabilities in every fifty.

“Now, suitable conditions are there and I believe that in the months to come the Labor Inspectorate will require every company that employs a minimum of 50 workers to have one employee with a disability,” says the Chief Inspector. “If companies do not employ people with disabilities, they are obliged to pay a minimum monthly salary, and a separate account [in the MLSW] is created for that purpose.”

The ministry told K2.0 that current Minister Skender Reçica has recently asked for a special mechanism to be created by the Ministry of Public Administration in order to increase employment of people with disabilities within the civil service, though no further details were provided.

While officials from the institutions suggest new policies will mitigate unemployment, for people with disabilities and activists representing them, discrimination has already caused irreversible consequences.

“All of this causes fear, it isolates them,” says Vatovci. “Consequently, it leads to depression and insecurity.”

Imprisoned by Infrastructure

Often, after his sister has accompanied him to Prishtina, Betim continues on to the college by himself, using a white stick to help navigate. Betim says that finding a job should go hand in hand with the right to free movement.

“I am aware of the law [on Vocational Ability, Rehabilitation and Employment of People with Disabilities] but the public institutions do not provide access to infrastructure, and when we need to have something done, we have a problem accessing them,” he says.

For people with disabilities, inadequate infrastructure poses a major additional problem even when their right to employment is achieved.

In the case of blind people any movement can become dangerous. Although blind people are taught to remember routes in a very detailed manner, the angles and the buildings they have been to before, the chaotic development of Kosovo after the war, together with the widespread phenomenon of illegal parking, hinder them even more.

Buildings and spaces are particularly problematic for blind people, since no building has a tactile surface.

The most illustrative case is that of the capital city. The Municipality of Prishtina has, in recent years, installed acoustic traffic lights, which sound when it is safe to cross the street in order to aid blind people. But only the sidewalks along Garibaldi Street, near the Grand Hotel, are tactically marked to direct blind people towards traffic lights. In other parts of the city, acoustic traffic lights and tactical sidewalks are almost non-existent.

According to Tishiku, the situation is far worse beyond Prishtina.“Only in Prishtina there are acoustic traffic lights, and according to our information those traffic lights aren’t functioning as they are supposed to,” he says.

A HandiKOS report analyzing the architectural barriers in 195 public and private buildings and services in Prishtina regularly frequented by citizens – including health centers, educational centers, social services and banks – emphasizes the need for urgent intervention to eliminate obstacles, in order to enable persons with disabilities to exercise their right to an independent life.

The report noted that standards of accessibility are only minimally applied: parking areas designed for people with disabilities, suitable toilets, access ramps and wide lifts for people in wheelchairs with buttons for Braille users (the alphabet for the blind read by touching) are integrated only in a very small number of buildings and spaces. Specifically, the report showed that buildings and spaces are particularly problematic for blind people, since no building has a tactile surface.

Agim Vatovci from the Association of Persons with Handicaps and Disabilities of Kosovo says that the inadequate infrastructure causes numerous barriers for persons of short stature, too.

“We have problems accessing the banks, the ATMs, because we cannot reach the money. In other countries, I’ve seen that short stature persons are given ladders to use the services,” he says. “I can say that the infrastructure [assistance] offered is next to zero”.

Vatovci says that both infrastructure and adaptation of workplaces are lacking in all regards, including the provision of comfortable chairs and desks for persons of short stature.

Agim Vatovci knows the challenges of navigating basic tasks when the infrastructure isn’t designed to support people with disabilities. Vatovci, who is of short stature, says something as simple as accessing ATMs proves a real challenge. Photo: Arbër Murturi.

“Lifts are also lacking in institutions we work in, and because of our short legs it is next to impossible to climb the stairs,” he says.

Betim remains skeptical about the improvement of the conditions for people with disabilities in Kosovo, too.

“If the wolf grabs the fox by her neck and presses hard, and she sees that he might strangle her, then the fox will approve all of the wolf’s plans and will not dare dodge them,” Betim says, speaking metaphorically. “So if our institutions really have genuine international obligations to care for people with special needs, not only employ them, but create conditions and not present obstacles to them, then there is a chance [the situation will improve], or maybe if some great miracle happens, otherwise I do not believe it.”K

Editing by Dafina Halili.
Additional editing: Lauren Peace.
Language editing: Jack Robinson.

Feature image:Arbër Murturi.

This article was written as part of K2.0’s Human Rights Journalism Fellowship, 2018.

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