town council

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.