A man who lives near the main train station in Bratislava drags himself and his wheelchair up three flights of stairs to reach his flat every day. He is a well-known figure in the capital, and was recently the subject of a Slovak television documentary. He is evidence that handicapped people living in Slovakia do not have an easy time getting around, and his life may quickly become even more difficult by the Finance Ministry's insistence that benefits for physically and mentally handicapped people be cut.
The government has pledged itself to a transition from a 'nanny' welfare state to a 'self-help' government-assisted welfare scheme that the capitalist countries of the West have had in place for many years already. According to the scheme, disabled welfare recipients like our Bratislava veteran of the stairwells get 'help' from the Social Affairs Ministry in deciding how their benefits should be spent, whether on paying someone to drive them to work, in making their buildings more wheelchair-accessible, or in paying for replacements for wheelchairs ruined by too many trips up and down the stairs.
The problem is that this reform, as many other state sector projects, is being overtaken by reform of another kind, one with a less forgiving timetable and far fewer concessions to social justice. Budget cuts, as mandated by tough schoolmasters like the World Bank and the IMF, have decreed that handicapped people next year will receive 2.66 billion crowns in handouts, roughly one billion crowns less than they were set to get.
These cuts might be tolerable if they were accompanied by changes that made it more possible for handicapped people to live and work - if, in losing one income, people were given a fair crack at another.
But nothing of the sort has happened, just as demands to cut budget expenditures have not been paralleled by cost-saving reforms to public administration, health care and education. While the government stalls on making these changes, the implacable demand that expenses be slashed remains unappeased, meaning that those with the least political clout have to accept cuts with no remedy offered.
Disabled people already struggle to live in a society that has, by Western standards, poor physical accessibility to buildings and public transport. The Finance Ministry says the cuts to the money they receive will prevent abuse of the system, and will foster an attitude of independence where once dumb demands on state coffers was the rule. But in the absence of wheelchair ramps, or of cost-cutting reforms to the bloated civil service, one wonders how long the government will resort to such arrant cowardice and cynicism before it gets around to promoting the same spirit of fierce independence among its own trough-guzzling employees.
The same question will doubtless be on the lips of our disabled train-station friend, as he bumps his chair up next January with a few less crowns in his pocket.