3 February 2014

Rancid community reactions should spur action on community living

With the European Commission’s blessing and funding, the Hungarian Government is steaming ahead with plans to segregate people with disabilities from large institutions into smaller ones.  These are what they call “group homes” (institutions with 8 to 12 beds) and “living centres” (institutions of up to 25 beds). The new institutions, by their very definition, will continue to segregate people from the community. Segregation is a violation of international law. It breeds societal anger, frustration and resentment. It entrenches the very prejudices from which disability rights emerged to eradicate. Enough is enough.

"These people will not set foot in our village" - Man at a local town meeting in Szilvásvárad. Image from Youtube/Horvath Laci

Since July 2013 MDAC has been calling for the European Commission to withdraw its €12 million funding for the project in Hungary. 650 of the 24,000 people with disabilities institutionalised in Hungary will be moved out of six large institutions. Of these 650 people, 97 will go and live in apartments. But the vast majority will be placed in institutions, albeit newer and smaller ones. 408 people will be sent to live in “group homes” and 145 people will live in “living centres” (five of which will have 25 beds and one which will have 30 beds). I love the euphemisms!

The European Commission and the Hungarian government are both completely satisfied that European taxpayers’ money is being used to fund segregation. MDAC’s view is that spending money on any institutions is a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Both Hungary and the European Union have ratified the CRPD. In fact, Hungary was the first European country to do so.

Article 19 of the CRPD sets out the right to choose, on an equal basis with others, where and with whom to live in the community. A policy which congregates and segregates people with disabilities into housing with many other people with disabilities fails these requirements. From a human rights standpoint, requiring people with disabilities to live in mini-institutions where they have no choice or realistic alternatives about where and with whom they live is in breach of CRPD standards.

Building smaller institutions in the community often causes local communities to raise their ugly head and shout: “Not in my back yard!” (NIMBY).


These people should be locked up

The new institutions are government purchased property. While the physical bricks and mortar will be in the community the reality is that the institutions themselves will be isolated from the community. In turn, a fear has developed among residents of the towns where the institutions are planned to be built.

I spoke with the Hungarian Ombudsman a couple of months ago. He told me his initial view was that because Hungary suffered under communism for 60 years in which people with disabilities were segregated, Hungary is “not ready” to have people with disabilities living in the community. His view is similar to that in wider society - having people with intellectual or mental health disabilities in the community will destabilise the local area, make it unsafe, and devalue property prices.

At a town meeting last year an anxious mother told a public meeting: “What if someone comes up to my daughter and strokes them?” Another person said, “We don’t want these people in Szilvásvárad! There are 3,197 other towns”. You can watch a video from the meeting here.


Their apprehension is not unique. NIMBY has been around for a long time. Recall the US in the 1980s, where new group homes in the community were set on fire to prevent people from moving in. In the UK last year a local community protested that four people with learning disabilities were going to become their neighbours: “Why should they be imposed on us and our families?”

I find these views uninformed, unhelpful and repulsive. But I can understand where the sentiments come from. We become scared and insecure about things which are unknown, things we have no experience about. We see this sentiment in other areas of social justice: whether it is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people in Uganda, or immigrants in the UK. People cannot shake off their prejudices from one day to another.

However, attitudes must change. I’ve argued in relation to the corrosive effect of “psycho-costumes” that all governments have a duty under the CRPD to carry out awareness-raising throughout society to combat prejudices. I’m not so naïve as to say that ratifying a human rights treaty means that we can expect progress overnight. But ratifying the CRPD does mean – as a matter of law – that progress must be made to advance rights whatever the general public thinks about the right or the group of people whose rights are in question. This is the simple doctrine of protecting a minority against majority views. It is a fundamental principle of any country which considers itself a democracy.

Taking action towards inclusion is even more urgent given the finding that across the European Union people with disabilities are less aware of their rights than average (see here). In Hungary there are 24,000 people with disabilities locked up in institutions. There is no mechanism for people to become aware of their rights. There are no mass movements or protests on the streets. How would this be possible when the people suffering the violations are locked up, and when they are prohibited from forming or joining NGOs?

It is a scandal that the Hungarian government is spending money on building new institutions which embed segregation. It is even more of a scandal that the European Commission knows this, and is using European taxpayers’ money to finance human rights violations.

The Hungarian government should invest in genuine community-based housing options, and provide individualised supports to enable people to flourish as fully-fledged members of our communities. The European Commission should wake up out of its bureaucratic slumber and condition the funding. What good reason does it have not to do this?

Thanks to my CEU student Barbara Méhes for reviewing and commenting on the draft. 

You can read my post in Hungarian here // A bejegyzést itt olvashatják el magyarul