Validity Foundation - Mental Disability Advocacy Centre

Unveiling Injustice – Conference and new reports launched

By Zsófia Bajnay 18th April 2024


Today, in collaboration with the Network of Independent Experts-NIE and the KERA Foundation, the Validity Foundation launched two major reports in Sofia, Bulgaria, during an international conference titled “Unveiling Injustice: Deinstitutionalisation and intersectionality in disability rights.” 

One of the reports is the outcome of a series of pre-unannounced monitoring visits, which we conducted to 14 Bulgarian institutions for persons with disabilities on 19 October 2022. The monitoring teams visited various facilities, including 10 small group homes, 1 large social care institution, 1 psychiatric hospital, and 2 daycare centres in northern Bulgaria. 

Previously, in our 2021 report titled ’Deinstitutionalisation and Life in the Community in Bulgaria. A Three-Dimensional Illusion’, we identified that Bulgaria’s so-called deinstitutionalisation process had resulted in a parallel life for persons with and without disabilities. Persons without disabilities typically live in their own homes or rent apartments, whereas “deinstitutionalised” persons with disabilities must live in group homes. 

Our new monitoring report titled ‘Poor her, for having dreams’ uncovers several types of abuse, including neglect, punishment, financial, emotional, verbal and reproductive abuse happening in small group homes. Shockingly, the European Union provides funds for the so-called ‘trans-institutionalisation’ of persons with disabilities, meaning that residents of big institutions have been transferred to smaller institutions, reinforcing their segregation and discrimination. These EU funds have been used to build some of the group homes where we found signs of torture and ill-treatment of persons with disabilities. 

The monitoring report reveals numerous signs of total institutions concerning small group homes, including no choice of where and with whom to live, no or strictly controlled contact with the outside world, physical signs of segregation, strict daily routine, identical activities, and paternalistic approach by the staff.  

One of the residents of a group home said: 

“I was told I cannot live alone because I cannot do many things on my own and I need help, but I really think I have learned a lot, and I am doing well on my own.” 

Residents of small group homes shared that they feel lonely, stigmatised, excluded, marginalised, isolated, ununderstood, unheard, controlled, humiliated, punished, traumatised and unvalued.

In light of these revelations, a series of recommendations are put forth to key stakeholders. From international bodies like the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to national governments and institutions, urgent action is imperative. Calls for revisiting legislative frameworks, halting investments in institutional settings, and prioritising community-based support systems echo throughout the recommendations. 

Our report calls for systemic change, challenging entrenched norms and demanding justice for persons with disabilities. As the conference unfolds, it invites stakeholders to confront uncomfortable truths and commit to tangible reforms that uphold the dignity and rights of every individual, regardless of ability. 

We also launched five national reports from Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Portugal and Slovakia as part of the DIS-CONNECTED project. The project, which started in March 2023 aims at preventing and addressing violence against women and children with disabilities in institutions and community-based services. The recently published national reports identify serious and ongoing violations of the rights of women and children with disabilities victims of gender-based violence and challenges to access support services and reasonable and procedural accommodations.  

A self-advocate working for an organisation of persons with disabilities said, 

“[F]irst, we are women, so even if we get a job we don’t get paid the same as men. And we get rated lower socially. What’s bad too, is that we are people with intellectual disability so we start from a double disadvantage.” 

Researchers from the five countries involved 36 persons with disabilities in the research through interviews and focus groups. In total, we carried out 70 interviews and 12 focus groups with professionals within the health- and social care field, representatives of victim support services, authorities, including the police, academics and women who have been victims of violence and abuse. 

A Bulgarian parent of a child with disabilities who experienced sexual violence 

„The system was completely indifferent […] In fact, there is no system, they don’t know how to react when there is a case of violence against a person with a disability. They have no idea, not a single institution knows how to proceed in such situations. That’s a fact.” 

The national reports share many of the key findings across project countries. Violence against women and children with disabilities is often not recognised and not reported. There are also similar barriers to reporting, such as a lack of information on resources available for victims, fear and dependency on the perpetrators, and distrust in the authorities. Institutional settings are fertile ground for violence, especially if complaint mechanisms are not in place and there is limited external oversight. While some countries made progress in creating more accessible services for victims with disabilities, others revealed significant gaps during our research. 

The national reports highlight the importance of independent human rights monitoring, the continued implementation of deinstitutionalisation efforts, the need for continuous training and educating professionals, and clear protocols for reporting violence.  

In the DIS-CONNECTED project, consortium partners will be carrying out monitoring trainings and visits to bolster the oversight of institutions and community-based services so that more persons with disabilities can have access to reparations. We expect that the new gender- and disability-sensitive monitoring methodology Validity is developing with the consortium and will contribute to strengthening the monitoring regulatory framework across EU member states. 

During our international conference, we highlighted the need for intersectional reform to address complex and compounded forms of violence, abuse and neglect that women, older persons, and children with disabilities living in institutions face. Furthermore, speakers underscored the urgent need for a proper redress and reparations framework, going beyond financial compensation and including public apology by the State, restitution, and providing persons with disabilities with rehabilitation and comprehensive support services. 

Download the ‘Poor her for having dreams’ monitoring report here in English and here in Bulgarian. 

The DIS-CONNECTED national reports are available here in English and the national languages of the project.