Bulgaria: European Human Rights Commissioner urges stronger efforts to protect the rights of children with disabilities

10 February 2010, Budapest: Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights raises serious concerns about the rights of children with disabilities in Bulgaria to live in the community and their right to education.

Yesterday, the Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, published a report on his visit to Bulgaria made on 3-5 November 2009. High on his agenda was the situation of institutionalised children with intellectual disabilities, including their right to inclusive education, and the need to close down institutions and ensure that care is available in family environments within the community. The Commissioner met with several Bulgarian authorities and civil society stakeholders, including the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC), the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), and other human rights organisations, as well as a number of parents of children with intellectual disabilities. Whilst in Sofia, he also opened MDAC & BHC’s roundtable event on inclusive education.

In his report, the Commissioner raised a number of issues that warrant urgent and detailed attention by the Bulgarian government. Of utmost concern is the continued segregation of children with disabilities who are removed from society and placed into institutions. Segregation also persists in their education; they are disproportionately denied access to mainstream schools and generally lack educational opportunities. As reported by Commissioner, of about 20,000 children with disabilities in Bulgaria, 5,573 are integrated into mainstream schools and 7,700 are in special schools, leaving “the vast majority of children in institutions […] educated within the institution itself”. There is significant evidence of the denial of education within Bulgarian institutions for children with intellectual disabilities. A major cause of concern is the fact that the programmes for education dispensed in these institutions are not overseen by the Ministry of Education and Science, but instead the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy which has the operational mandate over institutions but lacks the necessary expertise in education. In 2007-8, MDAC and BHC litigated these discrepancies in educational opportunities which resulted in Bulgaria being condemned for exercising discrimination against this group of children and for denial of their right to education (see MDAC v. Bulgaria).

The Commissioner also highlighted the failure of special schools to provide meaningful education to children with intellectual disabilities. For example, it was revealed that children in special schools are not allowed to repeat a year regardless of whether or not they have achieved the educational standards required. Further, children in special schools are prohibited from accessing schooling beyond the age of 16 years. MDAC and BHC have taken up these issues by lodging a case to the Bulgarian equality body on behalf of several mothers of children with intellectual disabilities which, in November 2010, concluded that such measures constitute discrimination.

MDAC joins the Commissioner in calling for full and swift implementation of the 2008 decision in MDAC v. Bulgaria, namely that the authorities adopt all measures necessary for ensuring that inclusive education is provided to children with disabilities so that they are schooled in the mainstream education system as far as possible. The Commissioner also calls for a timetabled plan to be adopted to eliminate segregated school practices to ensure that institutionalised children are provided with education which is available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable.

Further, MDAC commends the Commissioner’s urgent recommendations for deinstitutionalisation. Consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Commissioner upholds the right of every child to be raised in and to live in the community, preferably within a family setting. This also echoes a Recommendation adopted by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on 3 February 2010 which calls on Member states, including Bulgaria, to no longer place children with disabilities in institutional care and to give preference to community living. MDAC and BHC continue to monitor progress of the Bulgarian authorities.

The Commissioner for Human Rights is an independent institution within the Council of Europe, mandated to promote the awareness of and respect for human rights in 47 Council of Europe member states.

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