In Romania, a former communist country in Southeastern Europe, the institutionalization of people with disabilities and orphans during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime has had lasting consequences on the country — especially on the societal perception of people with disabilities. However, disability rights have advanced in recent years. While mental institutions are falling out of use in Romania, the government has not replaced them with other social structures to provide opportunities for people with disabilities, leaving this group without many options. As a result, disability and poverty in Romania are closely related, with 37.6% of Romanians with disabilities at risk of poverty in 2020. Thanks to NGO work and government initiatives, this percentage is significantly lower than it was a decade ago when it stood at 44.1%.
A History of Neglect
At the end of Ceaușescu’s rule in 1989, an estimated 100,000 children were in orphanages, a result of his pro-natalist policies, which banned abortion and contraception to stimulate population growth. During this time, many families abandoned their children because of poverty or disability and Romania still grapples with the grave repercussions of Ceaușsescu’s policies today.
According to World Without Orphans, more than 50,000 Romanian children are still in the social care system. Oftentimes, children who arrived healthy to the institutions later developed disabilities due to poor conditions within the orphanages and institutions. The vast majority of Romanian adults with disabilities live independently or under private care today. However, around 17,500 are still in public residential institutions. The deinstitutionalization process in Romania is slow and ongoing and the country is struggling to replace institutions with community-based initiatives to pull Romanians with disabilities out of poverty.
Employing People With Disabilities
People with disabilities who grew up in the Ceaușescu-era orphanages are now adults and can benefit from Romania’s membership in the European Union. The EU insisted that Romania reforms its orphanage system аs a condition to enter the Union. However, stigmas around disability remain and limit the progress Romania makes. Disability and poverty in Romania are serious problems, with some estimates placing the employment rate of the disabled as low as 17.97%, according to European Semester. In 2018, the European Semester found that around 45.5% of people with disabilities had a job, but organizations may be using different metrics to define disability and employment.
Many people with disabilities are capable of working. However, employers deny them jobs or only offer the lowest-paying jobs, leading many people with disabilities into poverty. According to Eurostat, 40.9% of Romanians with disabilities report facing “difficulty making ends meet” in comparison to 28.6% of the general population.
Disability and poverty in Romania also have close links because of accessibility issues in the country. Another challenge for Romanians with disabilities is a lack of accommodations in education and the workplace as well as poor, outdated infrastructure that limits their transportation in public spaces. According to the European Semester, there is little support for children with disabilities in the education system because teachers do not have disability training and schools do not have accessibility technologies. This contributes to high percentages of young people with disabilities dropping out of school early, which is a factor that increases poverty.
While Romanian laws protect people with disabilities against discriminating behaviors within the workplace, the implementation of these laws in practice is uncommon. While laws guarantee employment and accommodation in the workplace for people with disabilities, employers are often unwilling to hire people with impediments because of prejudice and a lack of understanding of how to better support people with disabilities. Some challenges that people with disabilities face within the workplace are a lack of flexible working hours, poor infrastructure and discrimination by coworkers.
In the last decade, the Romanian government has launched many national projects to tackle disability and poverty in Romania. The Romanian National Employment Agency is launching 13 projects worth €650 million with the support of European Union funding to stimulate the employment of people with disabilities, European Semester reports. Many of these projects, such as Employ, Don’t Assist, which hopes to employ people with Down syndrome, started in the last year, therefore, data on their success is not yet available.
One project that has garnered much attention is a startup company, Ophori Cosmetics. Based in Brasov, Romania, Ophori Cosmetics is a producer of handmade and sustainable cosmetics. However, the company’s focus on environmental impact is not the only reason for the media attention it gains. The company is investing in the community by creating jobs for the most vulnerable and the entire production staff of Ophori Cosmetics consists of people with disabilities.
According to Bogdan Dimciu, an administrator at Ophori Cosmetics, the enterprise began as a workshop where people with disabilities created products for donation to the community, acquiring skills in the process to aid in their future success in the job market. The founders of Ophori then made a decision to turn the project into a company. All of the employees in Ophori’s production team earn fair wages and continue to receive training from volunteers and therapists to develop their skills.
Ophori Cosmetics’ success shows that the perception of people with disabilities in Romania is slowly changing. Small steps such as this can ensure that more people with disabilities secure employment, allowing them to contribute to the economy as productive members of society. While many people with disabilities rely on social benefits to survive, they often do not receive enough to lift them out of poverty. According to European Semester, the monthly allowance of 265 Romanian lei is not enough to make a significant impact on the quality of life of Romanians with disabilities, especially because this marginalized group can often only access the lowest-paying jobs.
Despite Romanian laws ensuring the rights of people with liabilities to employment, many employers are skeptical of hiring people with disabilities and do not know what support to offer. Disability and poverty in Romania are closely related due to a history of neglect and continuing stigmas around disability, but both private and public sectors are making progress.
– Emma Tkacz