Disabled people set to protest social welfare reform proposal

Czechs with medical disabilities are upset by plans for social welfare reform that they believe could lower their standard of living, and that some have even called humiliating. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has proposed four amendments it believes will make the system simpler and more effective; however some of the measures cut to the heart of benefits that disabled people have long been accustomed to. On March 22 they are planning to take to the street to protest.

Photo: European Commission
In times of austerity the idea is that everyone has to save, and with the proposal of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs ’ social welfare reform bill, it is now the turn of the handicapped. Their umbrella organisation, the National Council for People with Disabilities has declared a public protest to take place in two weeks’ time in front of the ministry building. Its chairman, Václav Krása, says that the main problem is the proposal’s overall approach to a situation in which disabled people still need better care.

Václav Krása,  photo: CTK
“The main point of our protest is that the ministry is only approaching the issue of medical disability from the economic point of view, these proposals do not at all reflect the needs of the disabled and they are not made to help people integrate into society but only to save public funds and, unfortunately, that goes hand in hand with the general worsening of the situation.”

For the Ministry of Labour though, economically speaking, something has to give. As in other ministries the spotlight is on streamlining operations to make them more financially expedient, ultimately saving money that can go towards the needs of recipients. Dr. Miloslav Macela is the director of the ministry’s department for family and benefits systems.

Miloslav Macela
“The overall concept of the social welfare reform is not to restrict the amount of money that the disabled receive; the volume of that money will be the same. What the reform aims to save on is administration and the expenses that accompany the payment of subsidies. The idea is therefore to simplify the system, providing two payments instead of eight, and these should be able to better respond to the needs of the disabled.”

But some on the Council for People with Disabilities have called the end result of the proposals a humiliation, saying it threatens to make beggars out of the handicapped. The proposed changes, they say, entail revoking various state-provided benefits for purchasing an automobile for example, renovating living spaces and garages to make them barrier-free and reducing subsidies for medical aids. There are administrative changes that require the handicapped to document their income more fully and more often, which opponents say flies in the face of the aim of reducing bureaucracy.

Moreover, the system by which a person’s disability is assessed would be changed; according to Mr Krása, even people who require constant, 24-hour care could not be in the highest disability category under this proposal if they are still capable of communicating and thinking. He says there is no compromise on many key issues.

“The cancellation of support mechanisms associated with one’s disability card, such as subsidised fares in public transit or highway stamps, and related issues – that’s one group of problems. Another group is the administrative changes in the way certain subsidies are paid out; the proposals would mean they are no longer paid cash in hand but exist only electronically, which creates problems in cases of assistance provided by neighbours or others who can provide no receipt. There are certain things that are absolutely unacceptable to us.”

Jaromír Drábek
Labour Minister Jaromír Drábek says he welcomes discussion with the National Council for People with Disabilities and says there are aspects of the proposal that could be withdrawn. However, the council is demanding they be withdrawn completely and reviewed.

The proposals would affect some 300,000 people across the Czech Republic; the number that could potentially appear at the demonstration in Prague is a sort of case in point: in light of problems with mobility and the ability of disabled people to travel to Prague, the council says that 500 to 1000 demonstrators should be enough to send a clear message of their discontent.