Situation for disabled not easy

  • 2000-04-20
  • By Jorgen Johansson
Feeling it would not be easy to write about the disabled in Latvia without an inkling of the experience, Jorgen Johansson set out early on April 12 to ride around Riga in a wheelchair. This is his report.

Gunta Anca, 32, ended up in a wheelchair because of complications when she was born. She currently works in an organization called Apeirons, which in Greek means unity. Apeirons' members are disabled people. Anca moves around by operating her electric-powered wheelchair with her left hand. With some small movements she can turn in any direction.

"When I was 10, my father made me my very first electric wheelchair. It was quite noisy, but it was good for me. I could do whatever I wanted to do in the flat," she said.

Going through school with a disability in Latvia is not easy. The ability to move around is very limited.

"I didn't go to school. I had teachers who came to my home. Disabled children in Latvia don't go to normal schools. One either goes to a special school or has a teacher in the home. I had two teachers who came twice a week and stayed for only two hours. That's not enough," she said.

Today Anca has a bachelor's degree in the Latvian language and its literature.

I had hardly wheeled half way around the block and my arms were already aching. It's impossible not to notice the looks I get from people when I am struggling with the heavy wheelchair.

"I think disabled people in Latvia prefer to stay at home. I don't know what it's like to walk. It is difficult, because you can't do things that people who can walk do. It's hard to get around with steps and doors and then there is the attitude question again, but there are many organizations in Latvia working to change the attitudes of people without disabilities," she said.

Apeiron is now working on an interactive exhibition which will travel through the 10 biggest cities in Latvia from May to October, starting in Valmiera and finishing in Riga.

One will be able to participate in various activities and try different things that one most likely takes for granted. There will be puzzles to fill in while wearing a blindfold, movies to watch without sound and a course with obstacles to try and get through sitting in a wheelchair. Finally there will be discussions with the visitors about what they thought of the things they tried.

"We want people to understand what it is like to be disabled in Latvia," said Karlis Visa, project manager.

Two boys, around 10 maybe, walk by. When they have passed me they yell from behind, "Invalid" and run off as fast as their young, healthy legs can carry them.

Anca continues:

"During the Soviet era, everybody was supposed to be strong, healthy and good. I think that was political thinking. Now we have a possibility to go out so things have changed, but people haven't changed," said Anca.

However, there are a few things which have changed for the better for disabled people in Latvia.

The disabled in Latvia can get a government - approved loan to renovate their apartment to make it more handicapped-friendly. But to get the loan, they have to provide a security deposit and then have to repay the loan plus the interest. The interest they can get back later through social service.

"There is a new pension law about disabled in Latvia. Disabled people and pensioners have been put in the same group," said Lilita Laube, head of the Disabled People's Union of Latvia.

Still, some things remain the same.

"The Parliament has to change its way of thinking. For them it's difficult to understand that they could end up in a situation like this. Disabled people in Latvia are not protected by the government. There are regulations, but they don't work," Laube said.

Grouped by disability

"A state work doctors' examination commission gave all disabled people in Latvia a document declaring whether or not they could work. It is not only about work. First we were labeled into groups one through three. They say you can work, depending on what kind of mood they have for the day, something like this. The first group is for people with a severe disability, that's my group, and in the second group are those who are not so disabled, so they can still do things. In the third group are those who only have a small problem that can be easily helped, like with a plastic leg, if you should need one," said Anca.

The first group needs daily care, the second, the work disabled, perhaps will be allowed to work in a specially created environment, or sheltered workshop, said Dr. Veneranda Klapere of the work commission.

"All these cases are very specific and treated individually. Yes, we do issue these kinds of documents to disabled persons, in which we suggest or prohibit certain kind of jobs. This document is valid only for a certain time, then it will have to be renewed, and it's valid only for the person who receives it," said Klapere.

Cars parked on the sidewalk are a major problem. The maneuvering space between them and the buildings is very tight. It is simply too narrow to operate the chair and the leaning sidewalks are not making things easier. A blond woman in her 30s tries to get passed me, There was not enough space for the two of us. Swiftly she gave me a nudge, turning me to the right so fast, that I had to stop myself by using my hand against a parked car to prevent from hitting it. She didn't say,"I am sorry" or any other words. She just walked on as if nothing happened. Nobody around us reacted in any way.

Improving maneuvers

"I am working on a project concerning accessibility and how to move around -talking to the government and architects. It's not just because we [Apeirons] want to do all these things but because there is nothing else we can do," Anca said.

I roll down towards Krisjana Barona street, picking up some speed because the way is slightly downhill. Suddenly I remembered that this thing weighs about 30 kilos and is not too easy to stop. The driver of the blue Audi, coming from the left, probably realized that too, because he stepped on his brakes as well. With screaming tires he stopped just a few inches from me and gave me an idiot-declaring look. I gave him the I-am-sorry-look. He gave me the finger and took off.

Of course, there are ways for disabled to still do things that anyone can do in their spare time.

"I go to movies sometimes, but it's pretty difficult. I usually sit in the first row. I also very much like to read. My favorite author is Arturs Skrastins. He is strange and crazy. That's why I like him," she said.

I make a left turn wheeling up Lacplesa Street towards Brivibas Street. The nice downhill I had now all of a sudden turns into a steep uphill. My arms are pushing on the wheels as hard as I can, but it still feels as if I am standing still.

After a short while, I have to stop to rest. Then a small boy, not older than four years old, starts looking at me and pointing at me, asking his mother something. She takes a quick look at me and grabs her son by the arm and starts to lecture him for looking at me, the handicapped person.

Anca would also like to have a family of her own, she said.

"One of my friends had twins two months ago, and she is in a wheelchair, so there is a reason to think about it," Anca said.

I pulled up on Brivibas street and thought how nice it would be when I had returned the wheelchair to the Salvation Army office on Bruninieku Street, when a young woman walked by me. She gave me a look and a nice smile. I had no idea what she saw when she was looking at me. The chair or me.

"I never think about walking, so I don't know what I would do even if I could," Gunta Anca said. "It's easier if you're born with a need for a wheelchair. You get used to it because it's always there," she said.

I return the wheelchair. I feel strange walking again. I don't think it would be easy to get used to a wheelchair, ever.