Advocating for persons with disabilities in Bosnia and HerzegovinaPublished: Feb 11, 2021 Reading time: 7 minutes
Persons with intellectual disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where they are often placed in institutions and prevented from integrating in society. To empower this oft-overlooked population, and to break the cycle of institutionalisation, People in Need (PIN) and its partner organisations have been working to economically empower persons with disabilities.
Since 2016, PIN has supported the deinstitutionalisation of roughly 40 persons with intellectual disabilities in BiH thanks to the programme implemented with the SUMERO, a local partner organisation. In a follow up project titled My Work, PIN is now focused on helping the persons with disabilities find meaningful employment.
“Employment is key to helping persons with disabilities achieve inclusion in society,” says Sanja Lepić, PIN Project Manager. "We need to see them as equal and valued members of our communities and ensure that they have all of the same rights as everyone else.”
The project works on the empowerment of persons with disabilities in eight cities: Banja Luka, Brčko, Bihać, Sarajevo, Zenica, Vitez, Mostar, and Trebinje. Lepić explains: “We have chosen these cities because they already have housing units in which persons with disabilities live independently, and we want to continue working on their integration into society. Our first goal is to empower them to become competitive in the open labour market, which is extremely difficult, especially during the pandemic.”
Although persons with disabilities may have their own hopes and dreams for employment, Lepić says that unfortunately, the range of professions available to them remains limited: “The jobs largely include assisting in kitchens, on farms, in bakeries, etc. Through this project, we want to change the paradigm so that employers start to recognize them as a useful resource, and not as a burden to society. That is why we will work not only with persons with disabilities, but also with potential employers.”
Advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities
Lepić emphasises that advocacy and communication with decisionmakers are important components of the project. Current legislation regarding the rights of persons with disabilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina is contradictory, which makes advocacy even more important.
“We will try to identify where change is most needed and try to influence the decision-makers to act,” says Lepić. “We will focus on advocacy and awareness-raising among the general public, particularly students. To this end, we are trying to establish cooperation with the five institutions of higher education in the country, including the Law Faculty, Philosophy Faculty and Faculty of Political Science from the University of Sarajevo, the Islamic Pedagogy Faculty from the University of Zenica, and the Faculty of Political Science in Banja Luka. Students from these institutions are future lawyers, social workers, and journalists, and they need to know what it means to be a person with a disability today, and how they can use their studies to improve lives. We will also work with our self-advocates – persons with disabilities who will advocate for their own rights and who will be empowered through special trainings – all with the goal of improving the position of people with disabilities.”
Regarding the training provided by the project, Lepić says that the participants are counsellors from both the governmental and non-governmental sector who will work directly with persons with disabilities. ”We must first empower counsellors, who will assist persons with disabilities to be competitive in the labour market, to recognise their abilities and affinities, to write good CVs, to be well prepared for interviews with employers, and to know where to look for jobs.”
After the training, the counsellors will work to select local beneficiaries in cooperation with the social work centres connected to the project. “We will also get in touch with the employment bureaus to access the profiles of persons with disabilities that we can work with,” explains Lepić.
Transferring knowledge from the Czech Republic
As part of the project, local professionals and experts from the Czech Republic – where a similar program has proven successful – will be sharing their knowledge and present best practices. One of these professionals is Jana Loskotová, a social worker from the Czech non-governmental organisation Rytmus, which facilitates social inclusion for persons with disabilities. She emphasises that everyone can meaningfully contribute to society, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. “Everyone can be successful and happy at their job, and be an equal member of society,” says Loskotová.
Regarding opportunities for persons with disabilities in the Czech labour market, Loskotová says that success varies and that the pandemic has worsened the situation. She notes: “It is quite common for a person with a disability to find a job in the Czech Republic, especially in Prague. Of course, it doesn’t always come easily, and it is necessary for the employee to invest time to get to know their employers. The better they know each other, the more they can appreciate that the relationship is mutually beneficial. It is more complicated in rural areas, but there are still some employment opportunities. Rytmus works not only in Prague, but also in Moravia, in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, proving that change there is possible, too.”
Izabela Alikadić works at the association ProReha in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which focuses on training, education, and employment of persons with disabilities. She participated in one of the trainings in order to gain new knowledge and skills to help her organisation employ more persons with disabilities.
Alikadić says: “Projects like this are very good for persons with disabilities, but also for our society. It is important that we fight prejudice and understand that persons with disabilities can do a lot if they are given the opportunity and if they are supported. At the end of the day, they can give us much more than we actually give them. They can be very good employees and they should be seen from that perspective – what they can do and give, and not from the negative side – what they cannot. Everyone can do a job, they just have to be recognised, nurtured, and empowered. This is a way to give these people a chance. It would be even better if more institutions were involved in such projects, to overcome people’s prejudices together and make this society much better.”
In Alikadić’s experience, the biggest obstacle faced by persons with disabilities are other people’s prejudices. Access is another issue. For instance, wheelchair users have difficulty navigating the streets, taking public transport, or accessing public institutions. “These are some of the basic things we must work on,” says Alikadić. When asked what each of us can do to improve the lives of persons with disabilities, she says that overcoming our own prejudices would be a big step in the right direction.
Haris Kanlić, also from ProReha, participated in the training with Alikadić. He wanted to learn how to help persons with disabilities engage with employers. “I will certainly use the knowledge I gained to help persons with disabilities so that as many of them are employed as possible,” Kanlić says. “I think we need projects like this to help the public stop perceiving persons with disabilities as a ‘burden to society,’ but rather to value their contributions. Prejudice is the biggest problem because they are seen as people who cannot do anything. However, and I speak from my experience working in a company that employs three persons with disabilities: they can give us a lot, they can be equal members of society. With empathy and support, they can integrate into society.”
The project My Work is funded by the Czech Development Agency and is being implemented by PIN in cooperation with its Bosnian partners, ProReha and SUMERO from Sarajevo, and Nešto Više from Banja Luka. The project is scheduled to continue until the end of 2022.
The text is based on the interview given to the Radio Sarajevo on Nov. 17, 2020 and uses quotes given in the interview.