„Immunised” against disability

Gheorghe is a doctor in a hospital in Chisinau.  

Anghelina is a student in a secondary school in Falesti district.

Olga is an inmate of the women’s prison in Hancesti district.

They are all brought together by one problem: discrimination and hatred on the basis of disability. 

 

*

It’s a warm autumn day. Cita, a black Chihuahua puppy, is perched in Anghelina’s arms and trembling with excitement, watching the girl’s Skype chat with a friend. 

Anghelina is a 9th grade student in the gymnasium in the village of Obreja Veche, Falesti district. She did not go to school that day, having been among the pupils who acted as ”teachers” on Teacher’s Day. „She caught a cold. She dressed inappropriately for the cold weather. Well, she wanted to be a teacher”, smiled her mother, Ludmila.

Beneath her broad, relaxed smile hide years of tears, anger, helplessness and many struggles with herself and the people in her community. 

At the age of one, Anghelina was diagnosed with infantile cerebral palsy (ICP). At the time Ludmila was 21 and had another perfectly healthy three-year-old daughter.  

„At Anghelina the locomotor part is emphasized. The optic nerve is partially atrophied. And she can’t focus her eyes, that is she can’t follow the things she does. Because of this, she finds it very difficult to read and write. But the intellect is preserved. She accumulates information from what she hears. Her knowledge is limited from classroom discussions or what she hears on the computer.”

The first serious clash with discrimination was on Anghelina’s very first day of kindergarten. „For her it was something special. She had no communication, no socializing and she was crying that she didn’t want to go home, while the other kids were crying that they wanted to go home.” 

Only the headmistress told her not to bring her daughter to kindergarten anymore, as they didn’t have any conditions for such children. „The others were independent and didn’t need help, whereas Anghelina needed someone by her side to help her.”

Ludmila cried all the way home. She cried all evening. Anghelina didn’t understand what was going on and just asked her mother if she would go to kindergarten the next day. So, the next morning, the headmistress found them at her door. „I was very lucky that my husband’s sister was working as a nanny at the kindergarten. She took care of my girl.”

Another moment that affected Ludmila were the mornings when she used to cry her eyes out. Anghelina would sit on the last seat, on the edge, „so she could go to the bathroom, drink water,” and the second last seat always remained empty. „The children didn’t sit there. They didn’t want to sit next to Anghelina. They were afraid,” said Ludmila.

„The educator did not facilitate the connection between Anghelina and the other children. And this really hurt me. I think that these misconceptions come from home. Children in kindergarten don’t discriminate. That’s what parents teach them. That’s the one you don’t play with. That one you don’t talk to. We live in Moldova and we know these things only too well.”

Before going to school, Anghelina underwent two surgeries. The result: the child has started to walk even better. „Even though her gait is swaying, she can walk distances of several hundred metres.”

In 2019, there were about 177 thousand people with various types of disabilities living in the Republic of Moldova, including 10,700 children, which was 7% of the country’s population, according to the data from the National Bureau of Statistics .

What Ludmila went through during the first school years she sees them today as trivialities, but she had to fight hard battles for that. She fought for every „little thing”, just so that Anghelina could be treated the same as her peers and have access to education. „Every time we asked for our rights, we were perceived differently, and every single time we paid dearly for it,” Ludmila told us, emotional.

First of all, the roads in the village were not paved at that time and they used to take Anghelina to school by carriage. „If rain started, the roads would be washed out and Anghelina couldn’t go to school.” 

Then, there was no ramp at the entrance to the gymnasium and she had to climb the stairs on all fours. And there was no adapted toilet block in school. Ludmila dragged a mobile toilet and found a room for it on the first floor among some old washbasins. Every afternoon she came to school and cleaned it.

In the meantime, Ludmila started to attend various trainings for people with disabilities. At one of them, she mentioned that there was no support teacher in her village gymnasium.

The next day, she was summoned to school. „So you went to Falesti and complained? Didn’t you know that the lady there is a support teacher?’ I never saw her in Anghelina’s classes, I replied. It was then that I felt they didn’t like it and wanted to bring me with my feet on the ground. I think I managed to strike a spark.”

After Anghelina moved up to the secondary grades, the incidents started to increase in number. So Ludmila went to school every time to fight for her child’s rights. „Not to get the label of troublemaker,” she said seemingly apologetic. 

She also went when the teacher told the children, before they left for their winter holiday, not to go sledging, because they would end up ‘like Anghelina’; 

And when the kids started making fun of the girl and telling her she walked like a horse; 

And when they didn’t give her a contour map in geography, even though she paid for it; 

And when she got a 5 in the Romanian language class because she didn’t write a page of dictation in calligraphy, even though she explained to her teachers that she couldn’t write in calligraphy and read well; 

And when Anghelina sat for her English lesson in the last seat, after the teacher didn’t come down to their class, and it took the girl the whole break to climb the stairs to the second floor and she was late anyway, and the seats at the front were already taken. „The teacher should have taken the whole situation into account,” said Ludmila, outraged.

And when the headmistress asked her to bring some air freshener, because the smell from the room with the old washbasins was getting pungent, Ludmila couldn’t take it anymore. She laid a few pages with all her accumulated pain and pressed Send

The complaint went to the District Education Directorate and the Equality Council. „I was aware of what was coming. The school – was not.” 

She also sent a shorter request to the gymnasium administration. She requested a ramp for her daughter. Officially. Then she took her portable toilet home. Not before she rhetorically asked the headmistress, „Which of the parents bring air freshener to school?”

The result: she was invited to a meeting with all the teachers. She came out of it „feeling that I was guilty of having such a child and that Anghelina was guilty of having such disability”.

But after the Council’s decision, which found that „lack of accessibility of the educational institution and refusal to implement appropriate reasonable accommodation measures constitutes discrimination on the basis of disability in the exercise of the right to education”, things changed.

Completely.

Not one, but two ramps were built. One ramp leads directly to the second floor, where Anghelina’s classroom is. A toilet block has also been built inside the school. The attitude of the teachers has also changed and they take into account Anghelina’s needs and possibilities.

„I’ve learned that people see you as the big bad wolf anyway, when you ask for your rights,” Ludmila remarked. But she still believes „it’s normal to fight for them. Probably, if someone was in my place at least 100 years ago, the world would be much more tolerant today and Anghelina would have an easier time. I often say: nobody is immune to disability. You are not assured that tomorrow someone in your family or even you will not have a disability. Life is very unpredictable.”

Ludmila is aware that the fighting hasn’t stopped. After the ninth grade, Anghelina wants to continue her studies, and the Republic of Moldova is not accessible for people with locomotor disabilities.

Anghelina already knows the field in which she would like to specialize. „I like computer science. My computer science teacher respects me and cares a lot about me. I like it when I can do things on my own and don’t depend on anyone. I want to find a boy who can love me the way I am. You know, it’s painful when they make it hard for you for being different than everybody else. That shouldn’t happen. We should all get along,” Anghelina says with a smile. 

From her lap, the puppy Cita supports her with a quiver of her tail.

According to a study conducted by the Centre for Sociological Research and Marketing „CBS AXA”, people with disabilities are one of the most discriminated groups in the Republic of Moldova. In this context, the Equality Council’s case law over the last five years places disability in the top three criteria most often invoked in complaints. 
„More often than not, people with disabilities are discriminated against in access to goods and services available to the public, but also in the field of work, whether it is access to institutions, to education or, more recently, they face discriminatory situations related to the pandemic. We are referring here to access to information, social protection services,” the Council states in an official response. 
So a 2018 study shows that people often avoid these categories of people, considering them aggressive and not knowing how to behave towards them. The study also identifies a high reluctance (74%) of the population to include these people in society.
„People with disabilities are approached from a medical perspective, like they are sick and they need to be treated, which is a bias. When, in fact, they need to be given the support they need to be seen as an equal member of society, i.e. just to be given certain conditions for self-accomplishment” explained Vitalie Meșter, executive director of the Centre for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPDPD).

 *

– Do you really want me to tell you how my boss used to talk to me? asked Gheorghe*, a tall, thin and spectacled man. Just so you understand, it was mat (curse – from Russian) on top of mat. Like in that joke, when Vovka raised his hand and asked the teacher to let him tell a joke too. The teacher allowed him, but asked him that, instead of uncensored words, to use blah-blah-blah. So Vovka’s whole joke was blah-blah-blah. That’s how the discussions were going on between us. 

Gheorghe is a doctor working in a medical institution in the capital city. A few years back, a conflict arose between him and his boss. Gheorghe didn’t keep quiet and complained to the hospital manager: ‘It’s gone up to your head, I see. Things will not stay like that,’ the boss warned him.

„And they didn’t” the doctor tells us. He ended up being bullied, cursed at and threatened almost daily, including with dismissal. „The whole hospital knew about our conflict.”

Because of these pressures, Gheorghe went on sick leave a few times: „No matter how strong you were, it weighs heavy on your heart. That’s a lot worse. He used to pick on me at every turn and interpret things the way he liked. Just so you know, he’d make trouble for me even if I went out to use the bathroom. Saying I was leaving work.”

Later, the boss started to cut off his on-call shifts or give him a few hours of work a day, which led to a considerable drop in his salary. „I’ve got a year until retirement too. Why shouldn’t I get a better salary? Why do you have to put your relatives on guard duty? Everybody knows the night shifts are paid more”. 

In his defence, his boss argued that Gheorghe is disabled and unable to perform his duties, suggesting that he should seek employment in another department, with meal and rest hours, with daytime shifts, and not 24/24‘. 

But Gheorghe’s job does not involve interacting with patients, and his degree of disability does not hinder him from doing his job, he assures. „I have an oncological illness. I’m fine now. I’m keeping the illness under control. I can work, including night shifts.” 

„I wasn’t afraid he would get me fired. I told him: you just try! „But when he saw that his boss wouldn’t drop it, Gheorghe got himself a lawyer. „Why should I put up with all this?! I’ve got him on tape cursing me and screaming at me!” 

So, one day, he filed a complaint on his boss to the Equality Council, about discrimination and harassment on the grounds of disability. And the Council decided that he should apologise „for the intimidating behaviour, cease the humiliating and hostile behaviour towards the petitioner, and not allow any victimisation of the petitioner”.

At the same time, the Council asked the administration of the healthcare institution to examine the possibility of disciplinary proceedings against the head of department and, in order to avoid similar situations in the future, „to draw up as a matter of urgency an internal regulation on the prevention of discrimination and redress mechanisms, including procedures for protection against retaliation”. 

„He apologized,” Gheorghe recalls. „We had a celebration last December and he bought a box of chocolates. He came up to me and said, ‘Let’s calm down and get on with our work.’ ‘Sure, let’s do that,‘ I said, ‘Like I don’t want that? ‘”

But not everything went smoothly. Recently, Gheorghe found himself without a few shifts again. Furious, he went to his boss. „‘What’s all this fooling around? If you say anything else, I’ll go precisely where I have to,‘ I told him, and he quickly put me back on call. At night there aren’t so many calls, the schedule is less busy and work is easier.” 

Gheorghe is not sure if courage is what it’s required when you stand up for your rights, although he accepts that „maybe it is necessary”. What is certain is that „if you keep quiet however, you never get where you want to and can’t really get things right”.

Among the root causes of the limited participation of people with disabilities in the civil, political and cultural spheres are the lack of accessibility to public institutions, public transport and public information, and limited access to assistive technologies, the UN Common Country Analysis states.
„All of this leads to limited opportunities for education, employment and limited access to mainstream and support services,” the authors of the analysis noted.
Moreover, according to a 2017 study, people with disabilities are among the poorest people, since their main source of income is social protection systems, not involvement in employment or self-employment.
The employment rate of people with disabilities is half that of the general population, according to a report monitoring the National Employment Strategy for 2017-2021.
Vitalie Meșter, the executive director of the Centre for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPDPD), notes that this group of people can be employed, but it is not attractive for employers, even if they have certain facilities and subsidies from the state. „Moldova’s legislation on people with disabilities is too protective and does not offer those affirmative measures that would promote this group in the workplace. The employer is obliged by law to reduce working hours, but with full pay. But this is paid not from the state account, but from the employer’s account,” explains Meșter.

*

Olga*, a tall, sturdy woman in a black slicker, is shaking her walking frame – a sort of adult’s walking frame to help her walk. The device has stumbled over the threshold into the interview room and refuses to obey her. The woman keeps trying to get it past the door frame, which is pretty wide, but with no success whatsoever. Nervous and frightened, she glances now at the room and back at the stuck walking frame.

From behind, a thin woman grabs the device with both hands and, panting, gets it over the threshold. Then she supports Olga by her armpit and helps her up as well. „She agreed to help me as a volunteer,” Olga would later explain, pointing to the thin woman wrapped in a thick sweater and vest.

Seeing herself on the other side of the unfriendly threshold, Olga leans hard over the handles of the walking frame, pushing it to the tables and chairs at the back of the room. Her gait is unsteady, her right leg seems to move forward and sideways.

She collapses into a chair. She gasps, as beads of sweat, like tiny dewdrops, trickle over her upper lip. Her fingers uncurl like a fan, then stiffen for a few seconds and bend at the wrists, looking like the legs of a spider.

The muscles on her right jaw begin to tremble before she opens her mouth. 

– Hello, my name is Olga!

And she has been serving her sentence for a year and a half in the women’s penitentiary in the village of Rusca, Hancesti district. She does not admit her guilt. She is adamant that the final sentence of 10 years in prison for „illegal circulation of ethnobotanicals for the purpose of trafficking, manifested by the keeping, transportation and distribution of ethnobotanicals, committed by two or more persons, in particularly large proportions” is the result of a frame-up. 

Because of this incident, her health has worsened considerably, she says. „I’ve never been sick, except like everyone else: a cold, and whatnot. After they detained me, in 2019, I was beaten up and that damaged my peripheral nervous system. More recently, my optic nerve atrophied because of the stress.” 

That’s how she explains her walking problems and the difficulty in getting around on her own. A rather delicate issue, especially when it comes to detention facilities. 

Recently, the European Court of Human Rights referred a case to the authorities in Chisinau in which a person with locomotor impairments complained about „detention in a penitentiary not adapted to the needs of persons with disabilities, (inability to shower or go to the toilet without help, bed not adapted to the needs, as well as the impossibility to access the daily walking area or the room set up for meeting with the lawyer and the lack of a caretaker). 
„Once people with disabilities arrive in detention, the government is obliged to ensure the highest standards of medical care, detention and reasonable accommodation of detention facilities,” says Vadim Vieru, Promo-LEX lawyer. According to Promo-Lex data, there are currently 142 people with severe disabilities detained in the prison system.

In the spring of 2020, Olga was moved to Rusca – the only women’s penitentiary in Moldova, where she was to serve the remainder of her eight-year sentence. Here she faced practically the same barriers as in Prison No. 13 in Chisinau: no access ramps, an uncomfortable sanitary block and the impossibility of reaching the medical office, which was located on the second floor. 

„In general, the penitentiary institution is not reasonably accommodated for people with locomotor disabilities, on the grounds that the penitentiary was built in the 1920s”, confirms Aliona Bătrâncea, the legal officer of the Rusca penitentiary. 

So, in order to find a compromise, especially since Olga also asked for personal security, the prison administration offered her a cell in the disciplinary isolation unit. In other words, in solitary confinement. 

The block is single storey and with no stairs. Except, for Olga, even the low thresholds are a challenge. „We laid wooden ramps over them,” one of the prison staff assures us. On the day we went there, we didn’t see them.

Olga’s cell is the last one in the hallway of the building. All she has is a bed, a table set under a latticed window, a rusty sink and a toilet divided by a half-wall with books and dumbbells piled on top. The empty space in the middle of the room, about a square metre, is taken up by the walking frame.

She has no access to the concert hall. To get there, she has to climb about 30 steps, which she is unable to do, even with help. Books and food are brought to her cell. The doctor visits her on request.

So the woman has to limit herself to a few hours of daily walks in a certain area of the prison. The rest of the time she spends in her cell reading books, writing petitions and exercising.  

When she’s calm, the words flow clearly. When she’s nervous, she speaks in a high-pitched, sometimes stammering voice. 

„I can’t walk on stairs, I can’t cross thresholds. It’s hard for me. Do you understand? I don’t have a TV, I don’t have a radio set. I don’t go out anywhere. I’m only allowed on trial, which is online, make phone calls, call my attorney on Skype. That’s it. No concerts, no religious gatherings, nothing,” complained the prisoner.

With the help of her lawyer, she also filed a complaint with the Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Equality in the Republic of Moldova, alleging discrimination on the basis of disability.

The Council agreed with Olga and recommended that the prison administration „take appropriate measures to reasonably accommodate and include the petitioner” by placing her in an accommodated cell in the housing sector. At the same time, provide her with support services that would place her on an equal footing with other prisoners. „Failure to remove barriers rises to the severity of inhumane treatment,” the Council members warned. 

In its defence, the prison administration argued that Olga does not have a disability and therefore does not qualify as disabled. 

However, the fact that a person does not have an officially established degree of disability does not mean that person does not have such a status, explained Vitalie Mester, executive director of the Centre for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPDPD). 

„The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities doesn’t talk about classifying a person according to a certain degree of disability, it talks about people with disabilities as persons, who have certain limitations,” says Meșter. 

The Council also notes that the identification of a support person from among the prisoners is not in line with human rights standards, as it „is based on the goodwill of the prisoners, not on obligations of the authorities”.

But the prison administration says it has no other solution in this case, as „it has no such employee”, and such employment would require a government initiative to be adopted by Parliament, stated Aliona Bătrâncea, head of the institution’s legal department. „At the moment, we have what we have in prisons,” she concludes.

The situation is made even more uncertain by the fact that the decisions of the Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and for Ensuring Equality are only recommendations and entail no possible sanctions. In other words, it is up to the individuals and institutions concerned to decide whether or not to take them into account.

„The urgent need in this regard is to amend the regulatory framework governing the Council’s work and to confirm the obligation to implement the recommendations made by the Council,” the institution’s representatives stated in an official response.

Until then, Vitalie Meșter insists that public institutions by definition should be accessible. Including prisons. „If we are talking about an inaccessible institution, well, they were created many years ago, the institution is obliged to provide conditions adapted to the person’s need. It’s about the room, the sanitary group, the walking paths. We are not talking about the whole institution or that they should put up an elevator or anything. It’s just a matter of providing the prisoner with reasonable accommodation so that she can serve her sentence in the same way as other prisoners, without being discriminated against on the grounds of disability or health.

People with disabilities are one of the groups affected by hate speech, incitement to discrimination and other forms of intolerance, according to a report by Promo-LEX.
„Disability bias is most commonly used for negative comparisons, denigrating opponents, associating with illness, disability and mental health. Pejorative language and discriminatory terminology such as disabled, handicapped, weak, insane, mentally ill are often used,” another Promo-LEX report said.
„Politicians, in general, use a lot of stereotypes and prejudices in their speech, not only towards people with disabilities. If, for example, a politician says from the parliament gallery that his opponent is ‘a weakling and they shouldn’t listen to him, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about’, people will automatically perceive that man as being no good”, explained Irina Corobcenco, an expert at Promo-LEX. 
The problem is that hate speech isn’t just used by politicians. A study by the Office of the People’s Advocate also reveals situations where teachers discriminate against children on the basis of religion or disability and promote certain hate messages „even during classes”.
The phenomenon is also due to the fact that there is no effective remedy for hate speech in Moldova, as the national legal framework is incomplete, says Irina Corobcenco.
To help, the bill should provide for both misdemeanour and criminal punishment of those who use hate speech or commit bias-motivated crimes. But the bill has been sitting in MPs’ drawers for five years, waiting for a final vote.

* Altered first name to protect the identity of the subjects.


Any person who is a victim of discrimination can lodge a complaint with the Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Equality Assurance in person at its headquarters or via the SUBMIT A COMPLAINT platform on https://egalitate.md/depune-o-plingere/.

This article was produced with the participation of the Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Equality Assurance, the Office of the People’s Advocate and the Promo-LEX Association.

 This article has been prepared in the framework of the regional project „Strengthening access to justice for victims of discrimination, hate crimes and hate speech”, co-funded by the European Union and the Council of Europe and implemented by the Council of Europe in the framework of the Partnership for Good Governance II. The views expressed in this document can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of either party.


Photo – Polina Cupcea 

Editor – Nicolae Cuschevici