Implementation UN Convention first priority for Romania

The interview with Matei below was written in 2014 and just a snapshot. I have no idea how he is doing now.
Romania is one of the European Union member states that ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2010, but didn’t start the implementation process yet. It is obliged to do so, since the European Union signed it for all 27 member states already in 2007. It’s high time implementation finally happens, says Matei Ghigiu of the National Organization of Disabled Persons, ONPHR.
ONPHR was established in 1991 and is now one of the biggest federations for people with a disability. Its members are mainly organizations and associations for physically disabled people: 45 organizations and 75 associations. ONPHR works in the whole country, its headquarter is in Bucharest. It’s there I had a talk with Matei about the problems as far as the implementation of the UN rules are concerned and about his own experiences concerning living with a disability in Romania.
Work on implementation speeded up recently
Matei works as a consultant for the president of ONPHR and is very much involved into the implementation project. ‘The main task of ONPHR nowadays is lobbying for the implementation of the UN Convention. We advise and monitor the government with regard to this. Because of the financial crisis, the government didn’t have the financial resources for implementation for years. Highly qualified governmental employees with the needed knowledge in this therefore left their job in 2010 when the National Authority for Disabled People was closed. From then, the work came to a standstill. Now, we are making steps to re-activate the implementation process again. I’m busy with the final stage of writing a new national strategy for people with a disability. It will be a roadmap for a full implementation of the UN rules. The strategy will be presented at an European Conference concerning disability matters that will be held in Bucharest at the end of June.
‘The roadmap is a step by step plan for the government. Nowadays, most people within the government don’t know what the convention is about. Therefore, we first need to introduce a mentality change. More people within the government must become aware of the convention and its purpose. The next step is to build up experience on the matter again, to get full co-operation by the government and to collect some funds. The Romanian government seems open to co-operate in this strategy. Although the Romanian National Disability Council has existed for some years, they don’t act like they should for the moment. ONPHR, which gained the vice-presidency of the Council last year, wants to make radical changes and open the Council to new organizations. Organizations and associations for disabled people must be given the chance to become a member of it more easily. It used to operate as a closed circle for too long time.’   
Will the presidential elections of November this year have any influence on this scheme?
‘Not necessarily. It’s not known yet whether the current prime-minister is candidate to become president. Should he be and should he win, then there will be a reshuffle of the government. Otherwise normally not.’
Accessibility in Bucharest and elsewhere
Matei is originally from the mountain town of Ramnicu-Valcea, 100 km from Sibiu. When talking about accessibility matters, he tells Ramnicu-Valcea is more accessible to wheelchair users like himself than Bucharest these days. ‘Ramnicu-Valcea has suitable ramps for wheelchair users in the streets. In Bucharest, there are also ramps in the streets, but many of them are not suitable for wheelchair users. Accessibility is not only about having ramps. They must be suited to get used. A lot of the Bucharest public buildings and theatres are still not accessible. The metro is, just like the buses are. But, they do not have an electrical ramp. The bus driver must get from behind his wheel to install it. There’s no special transport for people in a wheelchair and there are no taxis adjusted to wheelchair users either. Hopefully, it will be introduced next year, if it can be financed. The city of Bucharest is working on accessibility, but without a clear plan so it seems. We do have consultations with the mayor of Bucharest to improve this situation. Accessibility works are now being done in a too chaotic way.
‘On the countryside and in small villages, there needs to be done a lot as well. We often talk with the local mayors to let them understand that disabled people must get access to streets and public places. There are 70,000 wheelchair users in Romania and 800,000 people with some sort of disability. The best example of an accessible European city to me is Vienna. Last year, I was in Brussels. Its accessibility was very well too.’ 
Personal thoughts upon disability
Matei got his own disability 30 years ago after a fall out of a tree at the age of 14. The fall caused a spinal injury. Matei stayed in the hospital for one year and a half. After that, he picked up his life and continued his education at school and university. ‘Not all people with a disability were put into institutions during those communist years. I stayed at home with my parents and went to school as usual, although it wasn’t easy. There were no provisions for students in a wheelchair at all. Each day, my fellow students had to help me, carrying me in and out of the classrooms. Their attitude was okay. I did overcome my disability very well. It’s easier to fight the new situation when you’re young. I had a lot of friends. It was not difficult to accept it.
‘A person with a disability of the highest degree gets 800 Lei a month. Conversed, this is some 170 euro. Is that much? Well, compared to the average salary level in Romania it’s about 80% of that salary. In my opinion, it’s not the money that matters most. A change in vision by the government in what the target group can do with the money is badly needed. Now, one only receives a sum of money and that’s it. There are no services for disabled people offered by the government right now. Whereas all kinds of services are necessary for each type of disability. The transfer of money should not be regarded as some kind of charity like is the case at the moment. A tailor made budget for each individual with a disability should be introduced. With such a budget people with a disability would be able to live their life the way they want it and be given the opportunity to make choices. One person needs more services. The other one needs more money.
‘Nonetheless, I’m satisfied with my life in Romania. I live it the way I like, although the effort is bigger than it would be somewhere else. Personally, I have three projects on my agenda for the near future. The first one is the further development of ONPHR and to make sure the UN Convention will be implemented. Second is the restructuring of the Romanian National Disability Council. And third: I will get married!’
Matei is a big fan of Pink Floyd. At his request here’s the song ‘Wish you were here’.
Copyright text: Johan Peters, May 22nd - ...