Out of the Asylum

Serbia -- long castigated as the land whose late president, Slobodan Milošević, launched a genocide in Yugoslavia -- is not accustomed to finding itself lauded for safeguarding human rights. But in one area of human rights protection, much-maligned Serbia has taken an unprecedented step that puts ahead of all the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, including states that are already members of the European Union.

In September 2006, Serbia’s Ministry of Labor, Education, and Social Affairs made it official policy to integrate into society thousands of people who had been locked away in Dickensian state institutions because they have a mental disability. With this historic move, Serbia adopted a practice that took hold in the rich, Western countries after World War II but was never applied in the Communist bloc.

It is anathema to the concept of a free society to segregate people solely on the basis of mental disability, to ignore their most-basic human rights, to bar them from access to education and employment, to deny them the freedom to choose where and how they live and with whom they can associate.

The policy change aimed at rectifying this grim reality in Serbia came when the Ministry agreed to apply country wide a pilot project that has, since 2003, established a range of community-based support services to enable persons with intellectual disabilities to leave the institutions where they were confined and begin living lives in the wider world. That pilot project demonstrated that people with mental disabilities are capable of living as equal citizens when they receive appropriate assistance.