Hungarians’ attitude toward the disabled: Not in my backyard

Only yesterday we were discussing the surprisingly low level of educational attainment in small Hungarian villages, especially in the country’s less developed regions. I brought up the example of a man from the village of Tolmács, about 50 km from Budapest, who seemed to be blissfully ignorant of the fact that the money the local government spends actually comes from the taxpaying public. A similar ignorance reigns when it comes to the mentally and physically disabled. This ignorance often stems from unfamiliarity. It has been the practice ever since the Rákosi era to hide the disabled in large facilities, preferably in the middle of nowhere.

Large facilities are still maintained to warehouse the disabled despite the fact that the European Union has been urging successive Hungarian governments to break up these facilities and place their inhabitants in community housing. Brussels even provided money for such a project, but it turned out that the Hungarians used the billions they received for the modernization of the large buildings instead of embarking on changing the whole system.

At last, sometime after 2010, the Ministry of National Resources–later renamed the Ministry of Human Resources–worked out a plan. But the EU deemed it unsatisfactory, especially since it envisaged moving about 15,000 disabled persons to home settings in thirty years! Eventually the ministry officials sighed and announced that, after all, such a transfer could be achieved in four or five years.

We are nearing the end of the year and if the government doesn’t move fast Hungary can lose 7 billion forints from the European Union. The first project was planned in the Bélapátfalva region near the City of Eger where there was a facility housing 150 disabled persons. The idea was to distribute them to smaller units. Some would remain in Bélapátfalva and others would be moved to Szilvásvárad, Nagyvisnyó, and Mónosbél, all three villages close to Bélapátfalva. First, Bélapátfalva’s inhabitants revolted: they didn’t want any disabled persons in non-restricted home settings. The disabled were fine as long as they were locked up. It seems that the authorities accepted the verdict.

Then came Szilvásvárda. While Bélapátfalva didn’t make headline news, the recent events in Szilvásvárda did. The difference between the two events was a video taken by TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The video records the meeting of Szilvásvárda’s town council, which was open to the public. Several online newspapers included the video with damning articles about the heartless and ignorant local inhabitants and the equally heartless and ignorant town council members. Earlier not too many people noticed that on September 13 László Horváth, the Fidesz member of parliament from this district, published a statement on his personal website in which he supported the inhabitants of Szilvásvárad in their opposition to establishing three houses in their town for about 40 disabled persons.

Of course, the town can’t interfere with the private sale of those houses, whose owners were ready to sell them to the Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság (Chief Administration for  Social Welfare and the Protection of Children) that handles institutions for the disabled. Horváth therefore asked the head of the Administration to change its plans and buy houses elsewhere. After all, he said, 300 people out of the town’s 1,700 inhabitants don’t want to have any disabled in their town. Why don’t they buy houses in the neighboring villages?

Horváth’s position strengthened the hand of Szilvásvárda’s town council, whose meeting can be seen on the unedited video taken on the spot and published by TASZ. The mayor explains to the audience that the council itself has nothing to do with the whole thing. In fact, they “want to get rid of it.” One of the stars of the local council claims that they “are not against these people but only that they are being  distributed.” Brilliant. Another city father gives a fairly incoherent talk about these disabled people who will be in town “among normal people,” which “will be a very strange sight.” Most newspapers mention only these sentences from his speech, but I felt that he was perhaps the only one present who had some inkling that something was amiss here. While others were outright antagonistic and claimed that putting these people in their town might have a bad effect on the disabled persons’  health because it will be clear to them that they are not welcome, he did talk about the peaceful dispositions of the retarded. He even queried what will happen to these people if no community will tolerate them. What is Hungary going to say to the European Union? Yet the decision was made to follow László Horváth’s lead and ask the authorities to buy houses elsewhere, for example in Bükkszentmárton where Szilvásvárda had already sent some Gypsies.

László Horváth, Fidesz member of parliament, with the four mayors behind him

László Horváth, Fidesz member of parliament, with the four mayors behind him

Today László Horváth had a sudden change of heart, which I suspect was not a decision he made himself. The ukase most likely came from above that it would be injurious to the party both at home and in Brussels if Fidesz local and national politicians supported such an outlandish attitude toward the disabled, toward those who are blind, deaf and mute, severely crippled or mentally retarded. Perhaps it occurred to someone in the party leadership that Hungary and Fidesz will look very, very bad in the eyes of the civilized world if Fidesz stands behind the Bélapátfalva and Szilvásvárad initiatives. (And, after all, these people are not being relocated to Felcsút.)

Horváth talked to the city fathers in all of the towns, talked with the neighbors and those who opposed the move, and now he sees that the problem can be solved. After all, people protested not so much because of the disabled people’s presence but rather because they were not properly informed. Naturally, Horváth isn’t telling the truth. There is no question, it wasn’t a lack of information that upset the local inhabitants. They simply didn’t want to have any disabled people in their neighborhood.

Horváth promised that he will personally take part in the settlement project. Szilvásvárad and Bélapátfalva will now have only two houses, Mónosbél and Nagyvisnyó four each, and Bükkszentmárton three.  He managed to get the mayors of the four villages lined up behind him even though the mayor of Szilvásvárad, who is on the far right on the photo, looks mighty unhappy. In the spring of 2015, if all goes well, the disabled people will be able to move to their new homes.

This case demonstrates that if the Fidesz leadership decides on a course of action, it can force its will on the local authorities. Therefore, we must assume that in countless other cases–for instance, when the locals kept changing street names or erecting Miklós Horthy and Albert Wass statues–the party leadership simply closed their eyes, shrugged their shoulders, and falsely claimed that they were powerless to intervene.


  1. The situation re disabled people in Hungary has long puzzled me.

    About two years after my first visit to Hungary, we attended a wedding and were introduced to a distant relation of the bride who was blind. A lot of fuss was made about this blind person attending the wedding, some people congratulating his parents on bringing him out ‘in public’, some saying that it was a very ‘brave’ thing to do, and some clearly unsettled by the presence of a blind person at the wedding.

    I was nonplussed by all this – how could the presence of a blind man at a wedding cause such a fuss? Surely people were used to seeing and even socialising with blind people?

    And then I realised that, in two years, this guy was actually the first blind person I’d seen in Hungary. And I’d also seen no one with Downs syndrome, or even very many physically disabled people. I seriously began to wonder if Hungary simply had fewer disabled people – or perhaps, in the UK we had more than normal.

    I asked my wife about this and she was quite surprised at my puzzlement, it had never occurred to her that there were very few disabled people around, and, when she thought about it, she said she assumed that families would keep disabled relatives at home, because of the “embarrassment”. She then remembered how shocked she’d been, on her first visit to the UK, so see so many disabled people out and about.

    Since that wedding, nearly 10 years ago now, I have been keeping a tally of disabled people seen whilst out and about, and I am still in single figures!. I have seen no more blind people at all (at least, none with white sticks or guide dogs), and only one person with Downs, who we only met because we were talking to a woman who ran a Downs charity (another thing you don’t see very often – charities). I haven’t even seen more than two or three people in wheelchairs in all that time, and I have never seen a wheelchair in the ‘wheelchair’ section on the bus.

    This year I saw my first and only mobility scooter (in the UK you can be in danger of being run down by these things, as there are so many around!). And even when I broke my foot and had to use crutches for 6 weeks, I almost never saw another person on crutches (I wonder if people also thought I was being ‘brave’?).

    So, is it just that disabled people are kept out of the way in these remote centres, or is it more that families with disabled members simply keep them at home out of embarrassment? And what does it tell us about a society that it can’t come to term with disabilities and would rather pretend they didn’t exist?

  2. That the disabled are warehoused in Hungary answers my question about why all the restrooms (at least in Budapest) are either upstairs or downstairs. Not a problem, no disabled around!

  3. Renovations in our Vas Megye house occasioned some surprise — because the plans include wheelchair accessibility. “Abled” is after all not a permanent and guaranteed status. But that consideration is not one to which our builders had been exposed.

    Odd for these mayors, these councillors, not to realise that for each house of two or three disabled persons a staff of at least as many caretakers and facilitators will be required — if not more — jobs, jobs, jobs, but not THESE sorts of jobs, eh?

  4. Paul’s experience couldn’t be more opposite than mine.

    We used to live in a small town of 30k. There, we met a blind man, who’s a trained masseur. He travelled a lot in buses and sometimes with his guide dog. He even speak acceptable English!
    As I keep a photo blog, I attended many public events. There was one event I remember was held specifically for the disabled, full of fun and games.

    Currently we are living in a town of 100k. conservative leaning. Naturally I see even more disable people around me. In our block of flat itself, lives a mute young man and another unit a mute middle age woman. I have seen them communicate in sign language in the streets openly.
    You also see a mother pushing wheel chair of her child in twenties. Another disable couple in wheel chair with their children walking beside them.
    At the hyper-mart, that is near a children’s home, you see volunteers or parents bringing these special kids out in the hypermart. To my knowledge, some of the newer buses in our town are equipped with lift for the disable.

  5. Glad to hear that, enuff, but, as you said, the very opposite to my experience.

    For instance, I can’t remember ever seeing sign language being used in Hungary.

    Apart from my few trips out on my crutches this summer (they are a lot harder to use than they look!), I have no direct experience of what it’s like to be disabled, but we have been using a pushchair for the last 8 years, so I do have some idea of the difficulties of being a wheelchair user in Hungary.

    We now have low floor buses and the new trams are pushchair/wheelchair accessible as well, but for most of our time with the pushchair, we have had to carry it on and off the bus and tram. And, another cultural difference – no one helped us! In fact people wouldn’t even get out of the way if they were standing in the wheelchair/pushchair area.

    And another thing that’s only just occurred to me – in all those years we never saw another pushchair on the bus. Here in England, the busses are designed to take two or three pushchairs (more if you fold them up), and yet you sometimes can’t get on, as there’s already too many pushchairs on the bus.

    But, getting back to wheelchairs – the average Hungarian footpath is a nightmare for anything with wheels (not to mention all the idiots who park on the pavement – not just two wheels on the kerb, but the whole car on the pavement!). And, outside city centres, there are very few ramps at junctions, so you have to bump down high curbs. Even where there are ramps, they tend not to match the road surface, so you still have to bump up and down 4 or 5 cm – difficult with a pushchair, almost impossible in a wheelchair.

    Still, at least out East it’s flat!

  6. I’ve been to Szilvásvárad a few times. It’s actually rather touristy. IIRC it’s set in a lovely valley and there’s a nice waterfall nearby. That whole area is quite beautiful. Anyway I suspect that some strange unfounded fear of losing tourist revenue through the appearance of disabled people in the town may have motivated the town council to act the way they did. Just a guess

  7. buddy :

    I’ve been to Szilvásvárad a few times. It’s actually rather touristy. IIRC it’s set in a lovely valley and there’s a nice waterfall nearby. That whole area is quite beautiful. Anyway I suspect that some strange unfounded fear of losing tourist revenue through the appearance of disabled people in the town may have motivated the town council to act the way they did. Just a guess

    Actually, I think there was a sentence about this from one of the inhabitants present.

  8. @ Paul. As usual, your experience is very similar to mine, even down to the puzzlement at the very question being asked as to why there are so few disabled people around. Society would have to change fundamentally, of course, to enable proper rights – firstly away from this unique Hungarian obsession with ‘normalis’ (whatever THAT is) as some kind of good thing, and even down to the nitty gritty such as parking on pavements – not something that allows many wheelchairs (or even pushchairs) to navigate the city.

  9. In touristic Tokaj the disabled used to live in a large, age-old house in the main square. They took sun in their wheelchairs on the square and bought cheap home made palinka in the nearby market. Then a few years ago the house was allegedly sold to a hotel developer and the inmates were moved to a new building way outside town. Now the disabled are out of wheelchair reach of their home town and there is no hotel in their old house – no nothing actually.

  10. tappanch :
    Fidesz refused to give an extra $2.3 million to the world famous Pető Institute today to save it from bankruptcy. The Institute rehabilitates handicapped people, especially children.
    230 Fidesz MPs voted against giving the money to the Institute, 4 abstained and a single Fidesz vote dared to challenge the party line.

    A first person experience I’d like to share – happened some decades ago, but still.

    I’ve met this guy in his early twenties, sitting in a wheelchair, drooling and talking mostly incomprehensible gibberish – after a long coma due to severe brain- and spine damage because of a car crash. (Didn’t used any seat belts – you can imagine.)

    He used to be treated in the Pető Institute for quite awhile, last time I’ve heard of him he walks with a stick only, working as a librarian, married, have couple of kids – have a life, however different (limited?) it might be to the “average” standards. He plays no soccer, for one, that’s for sure…

    Been living abroad since quite awhile, I figured, that the “standard” approach toward disabled people is to alter the circumstances of their living to fit to their abilities – as opposed to the Pető Institute, which trying to give back the person their control over their life, as much as possible, preparing them to take part of the everyday life, instead of giving them the latest hig-htech gadgets what their well being should depend on.

    What I mean, there is an unique approach to the problem, proven working on thousands of accounts, and the government says no.

    I sincerely hope, they won’t personally miss it – just only in the light of the latest government related car crash – when it forced out of business, just for the sake of some cronies who could put their hand on the property..!

Comments are closed.