by Zeljko Bajic
(Editor’s Note: Zeljko Bajic is recognized as the first blind journalist of the former Yugoslavia. He is best known for his radio program which covers the life of the blind in Sarajevo. During his career, he has worked in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Moscow, and Skopje (North Macedonia) for various international media, including Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. Today, Zeljko is the host, writer, and producer of a radio show on foreign policy and is a regular commentator on the public RTV (Radio and Television) service of Bosnia and Herzegovina.)
Before embarking on the topic of how blind people live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we need to establish some important information about this relatively young country.
Today, approximately 4 million people live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The state, previously one of six republics of Yugoslavia, gained independence after the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The Bosnian war followed and lasted for three and a half years, ending with the Dayton Agreement in 1995. With this agreement, the state is now divided between two administrative entities: the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
About 5,000 blind and partially sighted people live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is data that the associations of the blind have collected; there are no official statistics.
Organized education of the blind began after World War II in Yugoslavia, and special education was valued during the communist regime. At that time, there were three educational institutions: a primary school for blind and partially sighted children in Sarajevo, a school for adult education in the small town of Derventa, and a secondary school that educated workers in plastic, metals and textiles production. At the end of that period, the education of the blind in the IT sector began, mostly as computer operators.
During the 1992-1995 war, schools were either completely or partially destroyed. Soon after the war, they were renovated thanks to international donations and received their first students as early as 1996 and 1997. High school students in Sarajevo were educated as phone operators and, somewhat later, as physiotherapists. In the last 20 years, work has gradually begun on the reintroduction of inclusive education. However, progress for special and inclusive education has slowed and, to some degree, even halted. In regular schools, teachers are not educated to work with blind and partially sighted children. There are no assistants; everything is mostly left to the resourcefulness and perseverance of the parents.
The school for the blind in Derventa has been turned into a school for the education of children with various disabilities. Though most of the students are blind, this school is no longer specialized. Over the last decade, there have been significant changes to special education in Bosnia, and the future remains uncertain.
In their early iterations, schools for the blind were adamant about teaching braille, even to partially sighted students who found enlarged text more useful; it remained an important tool for all. But since the start of the computer era, many teachers are not teaching blind students to read braille. While it is true that today, more textbooks and other literature found in schools are printed in braille, the percentage of students who actually read braille is much lower.
Computer training was introduced in schools almost 20 years ago. Initially, illegally acquired software was used; fortunately, in recent years, with the help of donations, they began to use legal programs and apps. Inclusive education is mainly attended by children whose families have the ability to provide them with the necessary support. Unfortunately, there are many blind children living in remote and underdeveloped areas, and their families do not have access to the same opportunities. These children have no alternative but to attend special schools, usually far from home.
During the communist era, importance was placed on employing the blind. Legislation at the time prioritized employment for blind people in certain disciplines and positions. Now, those jobs that were held by blind people half a century ago no longer exist. The role of a telephone operator has long been replaced by technology. The school system has a harder time supporting blind students’ employment transitions, as few positions remain prioritized for the blind. Blind children today are mostly trained as physiotherapists, the easiest profession in which to find a job.
Some schools still offer education targeted at other occupations, as well as continuing to train some telephone operators. However, these students will have great difficulty finding employment in today’s job market.
In the Republika Srpska and the Federation, laws have been passed that oblige employers to employ one person with a disability for every 16 employees, and they have to set aside money for this program. Unfortunately, an increasingly noticeable practice sees employers using this funding to formally employ a person with a disability while only offering a modest salary for less than meaningful work in order to take advantage of a tax exemption. This is a fate all too common for many young blind people. In this unusual circumstance, many of them are quite satisfied with such a status quo. Also, since blind people receive disability assistance from the government, there is even less incentive to find meaningful or productive work. Most blind people who have pursued higher education will work in institutions for the blind as teachers, psychologists, and social workers. Some highly educated people work in the NGO sector, and several people work in the media as journalists.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a high unemployment rate. In general, due to the absence of jobs, citizens go abroad to find work. This is especially true for highly educated people. Unfortunately, blind people, regardless of their education, do not have such opportunities. Individuals still often use illegally acquired software, screen readers, and other applications. Associations of the blind occasionally provide computers and other small aids to their members through donations, but this issue has not been resolved at the level of healthcare funds, pension insurance, or in a way similar to developed European countries. Government agencies, schools for the blind, associations, and the non-governmental sector — no one currently has a strategy for how to provide new employment opportunities for the blind. The most commonly used argument is that modern technology has made it impossible for blind people to work in many occupations. However, it seems they lack the imagination to consider how modern technology may be a chance to create new possibilities.
There are two libraries for the blind in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Audio book formats are popular among their users; today, they are mostly on CD. There are far fewer braille books. Priority is given to textbooks for students and pupils. Fiction is rarely printed in braille. Only recently has work been done to popularize braille.
Braille magazines have not been published for many years. But in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro (countries that were once part of Yugoslavia), similar languages are spoken, so library users and magazine readers can use publications from those neighboring countries.
The Library for the Blind in Sarajevo is still formally registered as a public library in regards to the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, no one officially finances it or implements its activities, despite various international donations and projects. Digital literature produced in various formats is much more popular among book readers. Libraries have not yet become involved in the production of such books.
Orientation and mobility instructors work in the school for the blind in Sarajevo and in some local associations of the blind. But there are few cities in the country where the blind can move independently due to a large number of physical barriers on the streets and sidewalks, such as parked vehicles, inaccessibility of public buildings, etc.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a very strong guide dog law. However, it is much less popular to have a guide dog in Bosnia and Herzegovina. People in the blind community believe the reason has to do with the inaccessible environment. Many restaurants, retail chains, hotels, and other public places refuse entry to blind people and their dogs.
Modern mobile phones provide great opportunities to use assisted navigation, and many cities in the country have made appropriate maps. But since the environment is inaccessible, these maps are of little benefit. In the last year or two, the Dot-walker application has become increasingly popular. Recently, an online presentation was organized in which the author of Dot-walker, Libor Dousek, also participated.
Public transportation operates in a dozen cities in the country, but no transit company has an organized station announcement system. In the past, the state subsidized the price of tickets for bus and rail riders. In the last 25 years, many transit companies have been privatized and have not been interested in reducing the fares for blind passengers and people who assist them. Blind people are not entitled to any privilege in taxi transport. In recent years, taxis have been relatively expensive, so fewer blind passengers use them. Uber and other rideshare services do not exist here.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has its own currency, the convertible mark (KM). Some series were initially announced as banknotes that are accessible to blind users due to their embossed markings. In practice, no blind person can recognize a banknote without comparing it to the size of another. Cell phones do not have local currency recognition software.
Blind people can participate in the election process with the support of an assistant. The election law stipulates that an assistant of his or her choice can help a blind person. There are no braille election materials or custom ballots. Electronic voting is a possibility that is being examined.
Sports that are popular among the blind include goalball, bowling, swimming, and athletics. The golden years for blind Bosnian athletes passed 35-40 years ago, when the country’s blind athletes won medals at the Paralympic Games, World, and European championships. Some goal scorers were then members of the Yugoslav national team, which was a world champion in goalball several times.
There used to be a chess club in the Association of the Blind Sarajevo. One member of that club was a world blind chess champion. He no longer lives in Sarajevo. Chess is not as popular among the younger generations as it used to be.
In addition to sports, the blind spend their free time with the computer, reading books, listening to the radio and television. So far, only a few films with audio description have been prepared.
Experimentally, in Sarajevo, one theater was equipped with audio-description equipment, and several theater plays were produced with it through international projects. Unfortunately, the reception from the blind was not great.
The blind in Bosnia and Herzegovina live much harder lives than their counterparts in many developed European countries. The problems are that insufficient work has been done on removing physical barriers, and the issue of personal assistance has not been resolved. Many blind people spend most of their time in their own homes.