The Welfare Ministry of Latvia recently proposed to raise disability benefits from 2014. In a country which is currently blighted (as with the rest of Europe) by economic hardship and which must endure extreme annual winter weather conditions, such an announcement must give some relief to the Latvian disabled community. However, even a brief analysis demonstrates just how exposed disabled people really are.
Not content with the relentless winter weather in the UK, I decided to spend Easter in Latvia with some close friend of mine, who had just celebrated the birth of their first child.
It is an intriguing country. Soviet trams and trolley buses remain a constant reminder of forty years of Russian occupation , whilst regeneration, painstaking restoration and a rich Latvian culture are all evidence of the long way that this Baltic state has come since declaring independence in 1991.
A new member of the European Union, Latvia again made a great stride in distancing itself from the former USSR. However, there are some areas where the country remains far behind its fellow EU Member States.
As I tramped through the beautiful snow-laden woods on a winter walk, mummified in my thermals and several layers of clothing, (not to mention a ridiculous hat!) I wondered how a person more severely disabled than myself could possibly manage. Indeed, during the whole of my six day stay, I did not see one disabled person in a wheelchair.
This is hardly surprising. In an environment that can be as cruel as it is breathtaking, temperatures plunge as low as minus thirty degrees Celsius in the depths of winter. Even in March it was a struggle to remain vertical and on many an occasion I felt, and probably looked, like Bambi on ice! How is anyone with severe cerebral palsy or any other severe physical disability supposed to survive in such treacherous conditions. No doubt they must rely on family and friends to venture out into the cold for them.
I did a little research to see what the government provides in the way of state disability benefit, but if I expected to be reassured, I was to be disappointed. In Latvia, disability allowance is basically divided into two main categories. If someone has been disabled since childhood they can expect to receive just 75 Latvian Lats (LVL) per month, which equates to around £90 per month. That’s £20 a week, less than half the minimum amount available in the UK.
If a person has been disabled since the age of eighteen, they can expect to receive even less at 45 LVL per month (£54 per month). Even those in need of constant care are only afforded 100 LVL per month (£121 per month). No provision is made for any sort of carer’s allowance as found under UK disability law.
A day before I flew to Riga, The Welfare Ministry of Latvia proposed to increase these disability benefits. From 2014 those disabled from childhood would receive 90 LVL per month and those handicapped since the age of eighteen would be entitled to 54 LVL. The benefit for constant care would increase to 150 LVL per month. Even then, however, the support provided by the Latvian government falls woefully short of the assistance available in other EU Member States.
That the government has signalled its intention to increase disability benefits at all, should, of course, be seen as a positive move, especially when countries such as the UK is cutting theirs. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of the Latvian disabled community, the cold Baltic winter seems set to continue into Spring and beyond.