Since the fall of communism 20 years ago, the Czech Republic has made great strides in improving life for the disabled, who were marginalized under the old regime. Ahead of the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which is marked on December 3, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service takes a look at what it's like to be disabled in Prague.
PRAGUE -- Renata and her long-term partner, Jaroslav, like to travel to Prague several times a year from the Czech Republic's second city, Brno. The pair comes for business, or to catch a performance at one of Prague’s many theaters.
Both wheelchair-bound, they live in a building with disabled access, where many of their neighbors have disabilities, too.
On a noisy street in downtown Prague, Renata says a lot has improved for disabled people since the revolution that toppled the communist regime late in 1989.
"After 1990 a lot changed. These electric wheelchairs, for instance, came onto the market,” she says. “Then a lot of places have been adapted so you can get from the sidewalk into public buildings. There have been a lot of rulings about that.”
“Things are incomparably better," Renata adds.
Renata says she and Jaroslav both live fairly comfortably off the pensions they receive, along with the income from her job at a law firm and the computer work Jaroslav does from home.
They also enjoy subsidized transport and other discounts, and she says they are entitled to other benefits including help with housework, shopping, or personal care.Laws and Initiatives
In recent years, the Czech Republic has done much to improve life for the estimated 1 million people living with some form of disability, says Vaclav Krasa, a former member of parliament who now heads the National Council of Disabled People.
He cites improved access to transport, as well as employment opportunities. There are tax breaks for employers who hire disabled people, and there are funds available to help employers adapt their workplace or buy special equipment.
Krasa says his organization is consulted on all laws and policies relating to disabled people. But new laws are not always the best way to reach the goal of equal opportunity, he notes.
"Sometimes there are problems with discrimination -- employers might offer disabled people inferior work, sometimes they're the first to be fired. We don't have law to ban such firing -- I think that would be counterproductive as employers would avoid employing disabled people in the first place,” Krasa says.
“So it's not possible to say there's no discrimination at work, but we try to limit that,” he continues. “We have a new antidiscrimination law now and that allows people to defend their rights. And we have a big advice bureau where we try to help these people -- we have lawyers to help out."
Many smaller civic initiatives are striving to improve the lives of disabled people, too.
There are cafés that employ people with intellectual disabilities; and for several summers, a seasonal café has opened in central Prague where blind waiters serve up coffee to customers in the dark.Against Exclusion
One organization, called Assistance, works to integrate people with disabilities. The group says much has changed for the better since the "isolation, separation, and exclusion" of the communist years.
"In the past 10 years, plenty of jobs have been found for people with disabilities,” says Erik Cipera, who works for Assistance. People study in mainstream schools, and the situation is turning around at a very promising pace."
To be sure, there are still many problems.
Krasa says he believes the unemployment rate for disabled people is about 50 percent.
Cipera says Prague municipal authorities have promised to allocate 200 million koruna each year ($10 million) to fit more metro stations with elevators.
But that doesn't happen overnight, and it takes time to replace public transport with low-floor buses and trams.
Cipera also notes a need for more assisted housing to allow more disabled people to live independently. But he notes that that is a problem in many other countries, too.
And Krasa says that he's been in plenty of European cities that are harder than Prague to move around in.
"I think disabled people's lives are at about the same level as elsewhere in Europe. Maybe the level is a bit lower in the Czech Republic, especially in terms of income and benefits,” he says. “Maybe other countries have better preparation for employment. But the differences aren't that great."
And that represents great progress since the discrimination and exclusion of the communist era.