On 8th June, ENIL, the Center for Independent Living Sofia and the European Disability Forum organised a conference on “Investing in Independent Living” in Sofia, Bulgaria. We decided to organise the event for several reasons – the fact that Bulgaria is holding the EU Presidency until the end of this month, to coincide with the publication of the Commission’s proposal for the post 2020 European Structural and Investment Funds (ESI Funds) Regulations, and to raise awareness about the need to re-consider how ESI Funds are invested in Bulgaria.
Despite the opportunities presented by ESI Funds, they have failed to encourage the necessary reforms in the social and health care sectors in Bulgaria (despite the country often singled out as an example of best practice!). Disabled people are still unable to live independently and many disabled children continue living in small group homes, rather than families. Very few people have access to personal assistance (as defined by ENIL) and the mainstream services and facilities remain largely inaccessible. The choices provided to disabled people – of any age – are mostly between large or small residential institutions, with care provided by the staff who work there.
The conference was opened by our President Kapka Panayotova and the Minister of Labour and Social Policy Biser Petkov. The Minister presented his Governments’ plan to draft a new disability strategy and expressed his willingness to listen to disabled people. To his credit, he took part in the entire morning session and listened to FRA’s findings and recommendations on funding independent living, the lessons learnt from the previous and current ESI Funds programming periods and to what makes ‘good practice’ when it comes to independent living.
Understanding the alternatives to institutional care and how to facilitate social inclusion and participation of disabled people are key to drafting strategies, action plans and allocating budgets. For this reason, we invited three presenters to speak about different aspects of independent living support. We heard about the details of employment support and supported decision making in Ireland, personal assistance and housing in Sweden and inclusive education pilots in Bulgaria.
In the final session, we had a chance to find out about the changes proposed by the Commission for the next ESI Funds programming period, which there is a chance to comment on until the end of July this year. Finally, we heard about some of the principles from the CRPD perspective and the General Comment on Article 19 CRPD – with the first rule for investments being ‘Do no harm!’.
The conference was a good occasion to reflect on what is happening now and to plan for the future. One of the conclusions was the need to stop calling things what they are not, and to insist on the definitions based on the CRPD to be included in the EU legislation and policy documents governing the use of EU Funds. There is also scope for better cooperation among the civil society in advocating for an end to investing into services which are known not to deliver on social inclusion and independent living.
Photo caption: ENIL President Kapka Panayotova and Minister Petkov address the participants in the opening session.