Doychin has waited too long

by Yana Buhrer Tavanier*

If on a sunny autumn afternoon you happen to walk around Ovcha Kupel, one of the suburbs of Bulgaria's capital Sofia, you could meet Doychin.

When the weather is nice, he goes out, buys a cola with the money his parents have given him, and engages in conversations with the young people on the street.

The people in the neighbourhood know him and are not abusive, but they are not particularly friendly either. However, if Doychin walks the streets in the centre of Sofia, people move aside, away from him, as if he were very, very dangerous.

Doychin considers everyone who says “hi” to him to be a true friend, and is ready to do whatever someone tells him so they can have a laugh together. Sometimes people film Doychin doing whatever ridiculous things they make him say or do, and the derogatory footage is uploaded and shared on the internet, for the fun of everyone.

When the weather is not that great, Doychin stays at home, sitting behind the computer or in front of the TV, and, out of sheer boredom, constantly eating. As a result, he weighs 140 kg even if he is of normal height – “we simply can't stop him from eating”, says his mother, Tatyana Bineva.

This is what days, months- life looks like for a 21 year old with an intellectual disability living in Bulgarian society.

Doychin is labelled as ‘100% disabled’, and has no right to work, to get any sort of job, anywhere. “We think that our son could be very good at simple jobs, but if an employer decides to hire him, that must be done illegally”, says Tatyana Bineva. The paradox is that Doychin has a vocational qualification diploma as an upholsterer delivered by the special school from which he graduated – a certificate he can never use given his official label as unable to work.

Doychin cannot read or write with ease. His parents tried to place him in a public school when he was eight, but he was immediately transferred to a special one, where he stayed until the 8th grade. “Doychin started to learn how to read and write in the last years of his schooling, that’s when learning became easier for him, and he started showing an interest in school. But, according to the norms of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education, the state should provide education to all children till 16 years of age, no matter what their specific needs and stage of development might be”, Tatyana explains. “Doychin is 21 now, but his intellectual level is that of a child of 10-12 years old. Shouldn’t 10-12 year olds be at school?” she asks rhetorically.

Unlike for other children, the Bulgarian education system provides no opportunities for children with intellectual disabilities to continue learning beyond their 16 years or upon completing the eighth grade.  Furthermore, unlike children in mainstream schools, children attending special schools are not permitted to repeat a year.  They are passed through the system without regard for reaching educational standards.

Strategic precedent

Tatyana Bineva is one of the parents of children with special educational needs who last year lodged a complaint against the Ministry of Education with the Commission for the Protection against Discrimination, Bulgaria’s equality body which has powers to adjudicate in individual or collective cases, and whose decisions are legally binding. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), an influential human rights NGO, took up this case as their legal representative within their joint project with MDAC.

“Our children do not have the opportunity to choose whether to study in a school of general education, or in a special school, whether to be integrated with the other kids with the necessary supported environment, or to be isolated in special schools”, the parents wrote in their complaint to the Commission. They added, “it’s a well known fact that the education offered in special schools is not at the required level”. In fact, the state decides for these children what they are going to study. For them, education is only vocational, and the professions are strictly and concretely defined. And given the mandatory age ceiling for kids in special schools, 16 years of age, after which their education is ceased, children with intellectual disabilities are clearly disadvantaged in their educational opportunities.

In the beginning of November 2009, the Commission for the Protection against Discrimination concluded that the Minister of Education committed direct discrimination, based on disability, by not undertaking special measures to ensure effective and equal access to education for children with special educational needs.

The Commission determined that the Minister:

- violated the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the European Social Charter;

- failed to implement the decision by the European Committee for Social Rights in MDAC v. Bulgaria case in which the Committee found Bulgaria in violation of Article 17 (right to education) and Article E (right to non-discrimination) of the Revised European Social Charter with respect to institutionalised children with disabilities;

- has not undertaken special measures to equalise the opportunities for the adaptation and social integration of these children, in accordance with the special protection people with disabilities are due by the Constitution.

The Commission found that children are subject to segregation and isolation in special schools, and that the Ministry has deprived them of a supported environment in which their individual abilities are taken into consideration, and an individual school plan is created accordingly. The education that these children have received automatically puts them in an unequal position compared with the rest of the students, nor does it guarantee further integration into social life. That is why the Commission for the Protection against Discrimination recommended that the Minister initiate legislative changes which guarantee appropriate and quality education for each child catered to their individual needs and abilities, and regardless of their age.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center welcome this decision as a strategic precedent; it attacks key structural deficits of the education system and adopts a more inclusive approach.

“Society is not ready”

Eighty five percent. This is how many Bulgarians generally disapprove of inclusive education of children with intellectual disabilities and children with multiple disabilities. This is according to data from a 2007 sociological survey by Alfa Research conducted for Save the Children UK.  At present, we have no evidence to believe that the situation has changed for the better. In the survey, the question was posed: “Which groups of children with disabilities would you approve to be in your child’s class?”  Just five percent accepted to have a child with multiple disabilities in their child’s class, and only four percent could accept that a child with an intellectual disability be taught with their own children.

When talking about inclusive education in Bulgaria, one can very often hear the excuse that “our society is not ready”.

“Our society is not ready”, was repeated by some individuals in the beginning of November in Sofia, when the Mental Disability Advocacy Center and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee hosted a roundtable [hyperlink to our 2009 roundtable info once it is up- summary, agenda, etc] one year after Europe’s highest social rights body found that Bulgaria had violated international law by discriminating against children with disabilities in not providing them with an education. On this occasion, MDAC and BHC issued a report that analyses progress one year on – according to which, out of eleven recommendations flowing from the judicial decision, the Bulgarian government has partially achieved only four, while it has failed to achieve the other seven.

Bulgarian society is not ready for many things. For the rights of people with disabilities. Gay-couples. Immigrants. People living with HIV/AIDS. But is this a valid argument? Human rights cannot wait at the doorstep for a society to get ready. Human rights are not a luxurious coat for the back of some societies, they are every society’s backbone.

“The outcome of this case will not directly affect Doychin. Our idea wasn't to benefit personally.  In any case, for Doychin it is too late”, Tatyana Bineva says. “We started it out of sheer principle, because we couldn't bear this situation anymore. We hope that this decision will help many other children in the future”.

Bulgaria's Doychins have waited long enough. For some it is too late, but for others, future generations, this decision can make a world of difference.

*Yana Buhrer Tavanier is a freelance journalist from Sofia, Bulgaria. Previously, she was editor of ‘Social Issues’ of the Bulgarian weekly “Capital” (2003-2008). Yana is a representative of the Bulgarian Activist Alliance – an informal group of activists, working in the human rights field. As a fellow of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence in 2009, Yana investigated human rights abuses and inhuman and degrading treatment in institutions for adults with intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia, see http://dumpinggroundsforpeople.wordpress.com/.  In November 2009, this investigation was awarded with the third prize in the Balkan Awards for Journalistic Excellence.  On 1 December 2009, Yana joined the team of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee as Campaign Manager.

MDAC’s work in Bulgaria is supported by a grant from the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, and a grant from the Open Society Institute – Budapest.

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