Dragana Marković Matić lives in the town of Šabac, in western Serbia’s Mačvan district. She lives with rheumatoid arthritis, which has led to reduced mobility over time, and the need for support to perform daily activities. “I can’t function independently, I can’t move. My movements get more and more limited with age,” she says. The deterioration of her disease brought the need for a regular carer who would assist her most of the day. Family and friends were there to support, but in her words “this was a full-time job: being my arms and legs”.
The need for personal assistance is of course not exclusive to Dragana: other people in Šabac with disabilities have a similar problem. Families try to help, but cannot always be there as much as is needed. An alternative solution is to hire a personal assistant, but this is a financial burden that most families cannot really afford. Such personal assistants also need to be professionally trained on moving a person in a wheelchair, transferring them to bed or into a car, as well as helping with dressing and maintaining personal hygiene. “Someone who has never had contact with disabled people has to be trained in assisting them so as not to inadvertently injure themselves or the person they’re caring for,” says Dragana.
A ten-year journey
Dragana is a member of the Mačvan District Association of Paraplegics, which took the initiative to solve this problem through local institutions a decade ago. Back then, the association managed to include the need for an independent life for disabled people into the Šabac social policy strategy. Policymakers’ acknowledgement of disabled people’s needs was an important achievement but as there was no financial or other support, it took almost ten more years of struggle to see a tangible result of the policy.
The light at the end of the tunnel became visible in 2018 when an EU-funded ReLOaD (Regional Programme on Local Democracy) programme stepped in with support. “The most important thing was to create a framework for training and train the first people who were interested in providing personal assistance services for people with disabilities,” says Slaviša Savić who heads up the Mačvan District Association of Paraplegics.
With the support of the EU, and in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veterans and Social Affairs, the Association identified people who were interested in providing a personal assistance service and trained and licensed them. As part of the same programme they also managed to initiate a pilot support project where five people with disabilities were provided with personal assistance for eight hours a day and four others with four hours a day of support.
The implementation of the pilot programme gave the association a stronger case to convince the municipal authorities of how crucial the personal assistance service is for people with disabilities. As the result of continuing lobbying efforts, the municipal assembly finally included this support in the list of regular services that the municipality provides. The service is already included in the budget for 2021 and the salaries of personal assistants are now covered, and will be covered in the future, by the municipality.
“Getting the cost of personal assistants for people with disabilities included in the municipal budget was a huge leap and great success for us and we could not have done it without the support of the EU-funded ReLOaD programme,” says Slaviša.
Dragana and other people from Šabac living with disabilities feel more relaxed as they have secured a personal assistance service for a lifetime. “The quality of my life has visibly improved. With a personal assistant, you are independent,” says Dragana.
About the programme
The Regional Programme for Local Democracy in the Western Balkans (ReLOaD) is funded by the European Union and implemented by the United National Development Programme. The programme’s aims include strengthening participatory democracies and EU integration in the Western Balkans by improving the legal, financial and wider environment to empower civil society.
Photo credits: The Mačvan District Association of Paraplegics
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