Disabled allowance not in budget, says Laar

  • 2000-09-07
  • Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN - The current draft of the state budget for 2001 is still proving to be a source of contention, after Prime Minister Mart Laar announced last week that Social Affairs Minister Eiki Nestor must find 100 million kroons ($5.75 million) in the ministry's budget to cover an allowance system for disabled people for next year.

"The government has set down the limits of next year's budget and doesn't intend to back down on the principle of reducing the overall tax burden," said Pro Patria Union leader Laar at a press conference.

The ruling coalition is currently discussing the issue of the lacking funds, said Sigrid Tappo, spokeswoman for the Social Affairs Ministry.

The board of the Moderates also plans to raise the debate at the party's policy-making council meeting on Sept. 10.

Tappo said that the 100 million kroons will probably be provided eventually, without cuts being made from the existing budget.

The allowance, intended primarily for the rehabilitation and training of disabled people, is the result of legislation passed on social support for the disabled, which is supposed to step into force on Jan.1.

The law also enhances the old system, which provided for a disability pension, amounting from less than 1,000 kroons to about 1,400 kroons per month and distributed to people in three different categories, from the mildest to the most severe disabilities. The new law sees the fourth category, providing an allowance to a dependent 16 years or older with a strong disability.

There are about 65,000 people registered as disabled in Estonia, but there may be thousands more who are not registered, said Reet Siimmer, managing director of the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People, an NGO working on projects for the handicapped across the country.

"We are sure that we won't be left totally without money," she said. However, acute problems remain within the government and Social Affairs Ministry, especially regarding its acknowledge-ment of the need for the money, she said.

"The government needs to understand that (the disabled) are very dependent on these allowances. They shouldn't be so short-sighted," Siimer said. "They should not be saying, 'We can't find the money,' but rather, 'What problems will this bring to the disabled?'"

The priorities for the allowance are on education, especially of disabled children, and on rehabilitation. "It is mostly a question of their independence and quality of life," she said.

Currently, 8,000 children with disabilities attend the nation's schools, having to rely constantly upon other children and teachers' assistance to navigate the buildings.

Right now, "almost none" of Estonia's schools are accessible to the handicapped, Siimer said. The schools are mainly old, Soviet-era structures, posing ominous hurdles at every turn for someone in a wheelchair or with other physical handicaps - stairway-only access to upper floors, narrow doorways, small bathroom stalls. Yet none of this is seen as a serious problem, she said.

Still, the NGOs have witnessed marked improvement in the treatment of the handicapped in the past decade, Siimer said. In Soviet times only two disabilities were recognized - the deaf and the blind were separated from the rest of society with their own organizations, schools and enterprises.

NGOs working in Estonia under the umbrella organization Estonian Chamber of Disabled People have worked particularly hard in the area of psychological rehabilitation, teaching people to feel good about themselves and manage their daily lives.

"The main victory is that society has recognized that people with disabilities do exist," she said.