Tallinn seeks ways to employ disabled

  • 2000-03-02
  • By Brooke Donald
TALLINN — Indrek Ehtla was 13-years-old when he became paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a climbing accident. Ehtla fell off of an electric pole after taking a 6,000 watt jolt from a live wire. When he hit the ground, his neck snapped. Doctors said he should be glad he fell, as the shock would have killed him if he took it standing on the ground. Ehtla, however, believes that what he has been living since the accident is some sort of hell, only compounded by the isolation he feels in Estonian society.

Ehtla isn't sure that he wouldn't feel psychological isolation elsewhere—"it depends on the people you stumble into"—but the sheer architecture of Tallinn and the consequence of 50 years of Soviet occupation under which the disabled were treated as second-class citizens do not help people with mobility impairments feel integrated in society.

"The slightest thing can make you feel like a burden," the 24-year-old IT specialist said at a central Tallinn café.

Kristo Priks, 27, lost the use of his legs in a car accident eight years ago. Thanks to a sponsor, he spent two months in a rehabilitation center in Sweden after being discharged from a Tallinn hospital. He said in the Scandinavian country, he felt much more a part of society simply because of the mobility granted to him by accessibility.

"Part of the program was to go to the theatre, the parks, to use your wheelchair. Learning these things and being able to go out takes down the psychological barriers," Priks said. "In Estonia, very many people sit at home and think about being disabled."

As a consequence, the unemployment rate for disabled persons is disproportionate to the population in Estonia, according to statistics. Moreover, residents without disabilities are not accustomed to people with them.

A couple of weeks ago, however, Deputy Mayor Ant Leemets announced that the city government would pursue hiring more mobility impaired persons and that it was the responsibility of the entire public sector to set an example of integration, giving hope to some that jobs would become available and accessibility improved.

"The public sector must set the model in the employment of handicapped people," Leemets said.

According to the Estonian Board of Social Security and the Board of Pensions, only about 12 percent of disabled people in Estonia are employed. The rest of the near 60,000 registered disabled either attend school or are confined to their homes. Experts estimate, however, that there are in fact over 100,000 people in Estonia, meaning one in every 14 people, with disabilities.

"Many people are forced to stay at home, so it doesn't seem like a big issue because you can't see them" Kaiddo Kikkas, board member of the Estonian Union of Persons with Mobility Impairments, said.

During Soviet times, a common understanding was that physically disabled people were a result of alcoholic parents. People with disabilities were also considered a harmful and useless factor of society. The government created boarding houses and institutions to treat the disabled, and while children and adults who were sent to the schools received an education, society wasn't able to include them in business or social situations once they graduated.

"At that time it was an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality," Kikkas, who has cerebral palsy, said.

The key, say people with disabilities, is to cut down some of the physical barriers then integration--and acceptance--will follow. The deputy mayor admits that architectural changes must be made before the hiring process can begin. He even described his own place of employment as an example of an inaccessible facility.

"It is impossible to get any further than the information hall in the city government building in a wheelchair," Leemets said. Despite a ramp and handicapped parking in front of the city building on Vabaduse Valjak, six steps separate the reception area from the elevator that accesses the administrative offices.

Efforts by the capital city have been made during the past decade to improve wheelchair access: ramps have been constructed at the entrances of many buildings and sidewalks have been modified to cope with wheelchair traffic. But, these improvements are not comprehensive and often fail in opening up the city to wheelchair users. A ramp may lead a wheelchair user to the door, but the door may be too heavy to pull open, as is the case with Tallinn's shopping center, Kaubamaja, Ehtla said.

Ehtla also cannot use public transportation in Tallinn. Without assistance from "two big men," as he says, he wouldn't be able to get to the second floor of most buildings here, especially in Old Town. He cannot change money at the exchange in the new and modern airport. "The counter is too high, I cannot see the money the teller is counting."

Kikkas offers the Internet as one solution to accessibility problems.

"Estonia is so connected. The absolute majority of buildings here are inaccessible (for wheelchair users) and you can't find enough money to rebuild them all. Virtual access cannot replace actual access, but it may create more opportunities for the disabled," he said.

Kikkas runs a rehabilitation lab at Tallinn Technical University whose goal is to integrate Estonians with disabilities into society through electronic connections. Lack of funding, however, has reduced his staff of about seven last year to the solo operation he oversees now.

Ehtla and Priks caution against relying on the Internet to open doors for the disabled. While both agree that virtual reality can provide mobility impaired persons with more options—especially regarding employment—they say the actual reality is people are still just connected to an outside world they cannot physically access, which does little for mental well-being.

Making the necessary modifications to enable wheelchair users to work in Tallinn will cost a lot of money and take a lot of time. Leemets would not elaborate on the details of how the government would solve the structural problems and financial limitations. Kikkas said without international aid, there was no way the city could afford the design changes.

Ehtla, however, presented another option to speed along the process of fundraising, societal awareness and structural modifications.

"Stick everybody in a wheelchair for one year," he said. "Suddenly, there would be solutions."