Accessible Serbia: Legal Reforms and Persons with Disabilities

Article excerpt

UN Convention on Disability Rights, the first international human rights treaty of the twenty-first century, focused on one of the most economically, socially, and politically marginalized societal groups throughout the world: persons with disabilities (PWDs). (1) About ten percent of the world's population or roughly 650 million people belong to this group, forming the world's largest minority. (2) Despite this fact, persons with disabilities remain the most disregarded minorities worldwide. The World Bank has estimated that twenty percent of the world's poorest people are persons with disabilities, and ninety percent of all of them live below the poverty line. (3) These are just a few statistics that indicate a larger problem: the need to provide economic, social, and political security for the world's largest minority, as well as full inclusion in all aspects of society.

The concept of disability as a development issue is relatively recent, but growing in influence worldwide. In 2000, the World Bank Group developed a "Disability and Development" division and set out to create a series of guidelines for accessibility that it could utilize when deciding to give money to countries to rebuild or construct new buildings. This growing interest in disability as a development issue is echoed in the preamble of the text of the Convention, where the drafting states sought to emphasize "the importance of mainstreaming disability issues as an integral part of relevant strategies of sustainable development." (4)

The uniqueness of disability as a minority group is particularly significant for the development of a country, specifically because it is one of the only underrepresented groups that can potentially include many of the other minority groups and subgroups. For example, women with disabilities are among the most disadvantaged societal groups around the globe, in particular Muslim women with disabilities in regions of the world where religious law governs society resulting in subsequent tensions. The broad range of types of disabilities often times contributes to the marginalization of people belonging to this group--some people have less "obvious" disabilities, such as learning disabilities or mental disorders, which are not apparent to the average person the way a person using a wheelchair can be, but are nevertheless hindering to their function and productivity within society. Thus, the goal of disability and development, through implementation of the Convention and national/local laws, is to integrate disability-related issues and concerns into the mainstream development work occurring in a country, including: rule of law reform, good governance, improvement of education, and increasing favorable employment conditions and opportunities, among others.

While the Convention and its Articles provide an extensive framework of protection for persons with disabilities on many fronts essential to their health, happiness, and productivity, what presence does the Convention play within the federal and local legislation of each country that has signed and/or ratified its text? How have international legal obligations been reconciled with local laws in order to provide the best possible environment for persons with disabilities? What system(s) of monitoring exist on the international and local levels in order to ensure the implementation of the Convention and all its principles? And finally, what are the prevailing challenges in applying the Convention within specific nations?

South-Eastern Europe is one of the developing regions with the largest presence of disability-rights related legislation, projects, and initiatives. Serbia has been a leader in the disability rights movement among the former Yugoslav republics since the shift from the medical to the social model and the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1990s. With a combination of internal push from NGOs and dedicated members of government, Serbia started developing national legislation pertaining to mainstreaming disability rights as well as establishing the most extensive network of disabled persons' organizations in the region. …