What does the BHC do? Who are the people we help? We want to show you – through this campaign – who we are and what we fight for.
On January 26, 2012, Bulgaria ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which—along with membership in the European Union and access to new political and economic tools and resources—triggered a change in national legislation in accordance with the Convention. The main goal of the Convention is to encourage, defend, and guarantee full and equal exercise of all human rights and basic freedoms by all people with disabilities and to promote respect for their human dignity. One of the Convention’s main principles is that people with disabilities must fully and effectively participate and be included in society. It considers people with disabilities as individuals with rights who are able to assert these rights and freely make decisions about their own lives. According to the Convention, people with disabilities are people with long-term physical, psychological, intellectual, or sensory deficiencies, which in combination with various obstacles can impede their full, effective, and equal participation in society.
The current Persons with Disabilities Act is an attempt to harmonize Bulgarian law with the main principles and ideas of the CRPD. It went into effect in 2019 and formally replaced the Law on the Integration of People with Disabilities, adopted in 2004, but inherited its main principles and provisions. The Persons with Disabilities Act dictates the creation of guarantees and conditions for the equal treatment of people with disabilities; it does so by regulating their rights to medical, professional, social, labor, and psychological rehabilitation, education, employment and accessible environment, reasonable accommodations, accessible information, personal mobility, access to justice, and financial support. Since 2019, the Personal Assistance Act has also been in effect, which regulates the mechanism for supporting people with disabilities with personal, domestic, or social activities in accordance with their individual needs, as well as helping them to overcome barriers that impede everyday functioning with help from a personal assistant. Implemented in 2020, the Social Services Act arranges for various providers and services, including for people with disabilities. It is the first law to designate advocacy and mediation, support for the acquisition of work skills, assistant support, and respite care as social services. There are flexible, integrated approaches for providing services, support, and training for family members who provide informal, at-home care for individuals with long-term disabilities. For the first time, these approaches are legally regulated. The right to inclusive education for children with special needs was similarly regulated in 2016 by the Pre-School and School Education Act and its by-laws.
No official data is gathered on people with disabilities in Bulgaria. According to the National Center for Public Health and Analyses, over 3,000 children and 50,000 adults in Bulgaria are identified by expert commissions each year as people with disabilities. Various sources indicate that the number of people with disabilities in Bulgaria is over 500,000. In 2022, approximately 9,000 individuals with disabilities and elderly people in Bulgaria are residing in specialized institutions, while 2,300 are waiting to be accommodated in such facilities—1,023 of whom are people with psychological disorders, intellectual disabilities, or dementia. Another 1,390 people with these disabilities are waiting to be accommodated in the 273 residential social services in the community. Over 7,000 people with pscyho-social and intellectual disabilities are under guardianship. They do not have the right to independently make decisions about their lives, such as voting, deciding where and with whom to live, getting married, entering into contracts, or choosing their education or treatment.
People with disabilities continue to face serious discrimination due to a lack of accessibility in public and residential buildings, transportation, athletic, cultural, educational, and recreational facilities, as well as in numerous spheres of life such as education, healthcare, employment, social and other types of services, and access to justice.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has a long history of defending the rights of children and adults with disabilities in Bulgaria. The main focus of our work from 1999-2009 was children with intellectual and other types of disabilities living in institutions (they numbered over 5,000 in 2000) and specialized schools (approximately 10,000 in 2000). BHC visited these facilities several times and detailed the situation in each of the then existing child institutions/specialized schools for children with disabilities. We published the results in several large reports, which served as a starting point for work on the then newly constructed State Agency for Child Protection and for the various organizations later involved in this topic. BHC actively advocated before national (the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, the Ministry of Education, the Parliament, the government, the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination) and international bodies (the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Commission) for deinstitutionalization and reform of the legislation, policies, and practices concerning the right of children with disabilities to be raised in a family environment, as well as their right to inclusive education and support.
In 2001, BHC began visiting and monitoring state psychiatric hospitals and dispensaries (see reports here and here), as well as social institutions for adults with psychiatric and mental disorders. We observed torment and extremely inhuman, degrading, and cruel treatment in these facilities, along with their remoteness and insufficient number of qualified personnel, inadequate medical care, and miserable living conditions. As a result of these findings, BHC launched several campaigns with Amnesty International, Mental Disability Rights International, and the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre to draw attention to the problems in these institutions. These campaigns brought about the closure of these facilities and gradual deinstitutionalization. The policy and practice of deinstitutionalization of people with mental disabilities did not reach a national scale until twenty years later, in 2021-2022. BHC works to ensure that support and services are provided in a home environment and/or in an environment close to the family; it also works to guarantee support for an independent life in accordance with Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2016).
From 2008 to 2014, BHC annually prepared several thematic analyses for the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights on the state of the rights of people with disabilities (e.g. 2011); since 2017, we have been preparing them for the European Disability Expertise. Besides the rights to an accessible environment, education, employment, social protection/support, BHC also defends the right to access to justice for people with disabilities (e.g. national report and guide).
Over the last twenty years and to this day, BHC has participated in working groups that developed strategies, visions, and action plans for deinstitutionalization and legislation such as: the Health Act (specifically its section on mental health), the Persons with Disabilities Act, the Social Services Act, and their respective by-laws. Currently, BHC is participating in the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy’s working groups to implement the Plan for Long-Term Care 2021-2027.
A particular focus of BHC’s work is advocacy for complete reform of the guardianship system—both the procedure and the nature of the institution. The current system of full guardianship places thousands of people in a position of “civil death”. Following the case of Stanev v. Bulgaria in 2016, BHC participated in a working group to create the Natural Persons and Support Measures Act, which aims to replace the practice of placing people under guardianship with mechanisms that help people with disabilities make decisions. The Act was introduced in Parliament but was not passed.
BHC conducts strategic litigation with the goal of defending the rights of people with psycho-social and intellectual disabilities in Bulgaria:
- Stanev v. Bulgaria: In 2005, Rusi Stanev began fighting to lift the guardianship placed on him and leave his institution. BHC supported Rusi in his fight to win back his human rights at every step in the court proceedings. Thanks to Rusi and his desire to seek justice, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR in Strasbourg reached a conviction in the case of Stanev v. Bulgaria in 2012. One of the court’s particularly important conclusions was that any person deprived of their legal capacity to act as a result of being placed under guardianship must have direct access to a court in order to be able to reestablish that capacity. On March 9, 2017, Rusi Stanev passed away at the age of sixty-one. Bulgarian legislation now includes a legal option for those under limited guardianship to personally request its annulment and to receive support and help when conducting legal cases. However, the services that are intended to provide this support are still not functioning.
- Anatoliy Marinov v. Bulgaria: This is a case from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg concerning an individual under guardianship whom BHC aided in his appeal for his right to vote in parliamentary elections. According to the Bulgarian Constitution, people under guardianship are forbidden to vote. On February 15, 2022, the ECHR constated a violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.