(Note: academic training is not concerned)

Sergiu RUBA,
President of the Romanian Association of the blind
Coordinator of the EBU working group on education

Vocational training and employment of the visually disabled in Romania in 2006, two months before the formal integration of the country in The European Union, looks like a strange mixture: heritage of the past refusing to leave away besides a dynamic present not very well orientated to the future. This image has to be completed with dismembered economic units, but with no other working and employing structure built up instead so far.

Ghosts of the past

Trying to cut a long story short, let's start with the early ninety-fifties when the communist regime decided to organize economic units for the disabled persons, formally, in order to help them, but, as a matter of fact, aiming at organizing and controlling the society as a whole, without beggars, gadabouts, parasites, rolling stones. Small economic units have been established where the blind and the physically disabled started to produce cardboard boxes, brushes and brooms. Step by step their number increased and the units, named "cooperatives" were absorbed by a national union of the cooperatives, not only of the disabled persons, but also of the able-bodied. Their common characteristics being the low use of the machines and predominance of the hand work. An important difference has to be kept in mind: by comparison with other socialist states, romanian cooperatives never belonged to the organization of the blind or other NGOs of the disabled persons… they were parts of the above-quoted Union of the Cooperatives, theoretically, built on the collective property principle, but in fact, run by the authorities. Blind workers had no right to decide on relevant issues concerning their work or everyday life. The Union of the Cooperatives was the policy maker, fully controlled by the state administration.
At the end of the fifties, training in medical massage was also initiated for the blind. Education and specialized schools were adapted at the purpose of employment in the above-mentioned trades.
In the sixties, training in telephony, in music and piano tuning started with encouraging results. In the same time, academic preparation at the universitary level became wider and more various.
But, by 1975-1980, when the political regime became more oppressing, strange changes, decided by the government appeared in the training and employment area of the blind: the academic curriculum of the high schools was replaced by another, focused on physiotherapy. In these conditions, vocational schools produced workers in the boxes, brushes and brooms cooperatives and the high schools graduates became automatically medical massors, nurses, physiotherapists etc. Telephony and music war abandoned without explanations and no other vocational training was approached. Responsibility belonged entirely to the ministry of labour. But, even if the visually disabled training was limited to the hand work in cooperatives and physiotherapy, many people were employed. Graduating their average studies, youngsters used to find immediately a job. At the beginning of 1990, 4000 blind had a job.
After the communist regime failure, it became clear that the manufacturing cooperatives won't resist on the open economic market. In two years, many of them started to fail. The social protection of the blind appeared as major requirement. After long and hard campaigns, the national organisation of the blind convinced the authorities to adopt a law permitting to the blind males to retire with full pension after 15 years of work and the females after 10 years. For the partially sighted, the same measure was implemented after 20 years of employment for the males and 15 years for the females.
(Nota Bene: the law concerned only the visually disabled, no other disability category, it dates since 1992 resumed, with light changes, always favourable to the visually disabled, in the Retirement Genral Act of 2001).
The 1992 law was a signal with both positive and perverse effects: many visually disabled found their protection against unemployment in conditions of lack of premises for retraining and other employment perspectives. But, on the other side of the barricade, many managers forced the visually disabled, first of all the blind, to go in pension and vacant their working places. Some production units faced real difficlties, but there were employers who used the pensioning law as a dirty blackmailing mean.
Nowadays, the blind manufacturers are not more than 150, while the physiotherapists' number is about 800, comparable with figures occurring before 1990.

School training inertia

In the early nineties, it became obvious that school training cannot continue with outmoded curricula like those for the hand workers, boxes and brushes makers. On the other hand, it is obvious that abilities of the blind are much higher. Even within the limits of hand work, a wide variety of skills could be tackled by the visually disabled. Ten years ago, romanian authorities claimed they had no money to invest in retraining of the blind or other categories of disabled. It's true, the country and the people were poor. But, very few things changed in the area of the visually disabled training since then. Today, the young ones do study physiotherapy during three years after having graduated their high secondary school. At the end of the studies, there is no authority to help them to find a job like before 1990, in the communist times. That's why these youngsters learnt very well how to use their elboughs.

The only relevant change was the implementation of postgraduate training course of two years in computers with the initial support of the dutch Visio foundation and later-on, with the support of the Romanian ministry of education. However, very few of this new school graduates succeed to find a job. The association of the blind and some schools for the blind are employing someones and fortunately private companies began to open their doors for the best of them.
Absence of reform in the school training system is a real scandal: vocational schools for the blind are going on producing unemployed on conveyers. They refused to renounce at their trainers jobs, sacrifying the young blind with the medieval cardboard boxes and brushes hand making schooling. Vocational schools for the blind are now sheltered workshops for trainers and teachers, for headmasters and technical staff.
A real reform in this field needs money and an earnest governmental policy. It is hard believable, but the existing changes in physiotherapy and computers training were imposed by the national organisation of the blind and by foreign initiatives, not by the educational or labour authorities.

What should be done?

The only training success in Romania is physiotherapy with its branches: medical massage, reflexology, pressing puncture. People are employed in hospitals, other medical units, in tourism, in sports. The young generation is orientated towards the private area, many of them becoming private service providers. Early retirement in order to get a pension and private work after is a frequent solution today.
But, a profound reform of the vocational training of the visually disabled is necessary. First of all, the present vocational schools should be cancelled and replaced with other systems where new experiments should encounter their beneficiaries. Integration of the visually disabled in the mainstream technical schools, according to their abilities, should be supported by the government. A very important detail not to be forgotten: there is no formal obstacle for the blind to study in the mainstream schools, but there is no help for them to get their specific and necessary equipments. The social insurance system doesn't include reimbursements for the disabled persons during their studies or at work.
There is no regulation imposing the reasonable accommodation. Otherwise, EU directive number 78/2000 hasn't been adopted so far in Romania as a distinct act. Authorities used to claim that this directive has been melted in more domestic laws.
The Association of the blind has to become a major training services provider. It has already started to do it by organising and developing, these latest two years, training courses of computer operation and reflexology within the frame of E.U. PHARE program and a domestic governmental program.
We have a major and relevant project: to build a social and rehabilitation centre of the organisation on a piece of land chartered for this purpose by the Bucharest city hall. The centre was designed with training areas and services focused first of all on tactile, hearing and memory skills of the blind as a compensation of sight absence: classic physiotherapy, medical massage, reflexology and pressing puncture, sound engineering, radio trades, radio journalism, audio-books production, computer sciences, computer-based support for various public services, music, foreign languages, translation and interpretation etc., etc.
Fortunately, the new laws allow the NGO's to became educational and training services providers and, for the project of the social and rehabilitation centre, up to the first of November 2006, the Romanian visually disabled have donated an amount of 101.000 euros, during a period of seven months. Now, like in 1950, in 1960, in 1970, in 1990 and in 2000, we are still waiting for the response of our authorities. It means that, at our first step in The European Union, we have nothing… except solidarity and courage of the blind.

Some relevant figures to end with Romania is a country with a surface of 237.500 square kilometres and 22 million inhabitants, the seventh country in the E. U. from the point of view of its population.
The real number of the totally blind persons together with the partially sighted up to 10% of the normal sight is about 45,000. But, due to the fact that the specific laws also include in the visual disability category four groups, (among them those affected by minor diseases), the governmental statistics often mentiones 82,000 persons. Not all these groups have specific rights, people with a light disability, for instance, are there only for statistics and medical survey. Starting with 2007,they'll touch a small allowance. Until January the first 2004, The Association of the Blind used to deliver,to all the citizens entitled to receive them, the allowances in money coming from the government, according to The Disability Act. The organization was able to rely on a very exact statistics of the visuall disabled. Today,the allowances are redistributed by the local authorities which ar also responsible with the documents the visual disability is recognized on. As these administrations don't use to put their data at our disposal, we have lost the control on the number of visually disabled recognized as such and having the right to enjoy the specific legislation stipulations.
80% of the blind and partially sighted persons are more than 60 years old. Remaining 20% group is coposed of 1.000 school children and youngsters. The number of persons within the working age should be of 6.500. Only by 1.600 are employed or university students.
In 1999,first signs appeared that the postcommunist economic crisis of the country could reach an end. After reforms,a very quick development could be registered. Last year development rhythm reached 8%. This year rhythm was estimated at 6.5%, but it's clear now that it will be at least 7.2%.
These latest years, the living standard really increased. The eaverage wage touches the amount of 275 euros per month. By comparison,in 1990, it was of 30 dollars and in 2,000, of 80 euros.
The allowances of a totally blind person are of 150 euros, received in addition to the salary, pension or other incomes. After their age of 50 years, the blind have the right to work on salary and on pension in the same time. As a general rule, the blind who are employed win more than the average payed population. Many physiotherapists are very well payed or, working privately, are able to reach a significant income.
However, the major part of the blind, those who were forced to retire or the partially sighted who don't work, having a very low allowance (it will be of 40 euros next year) do experiment unfortunately a low living standard.