Accessibility of Gesy providers for people with disabilities is not a given

By Efi Xanthou

On October 27, 2022, a report from Gesy’s oversight ombudsperson was distributed to various government departments and the House of Representatives. The title of the report was “Accessibility of people with disabilities to buildings and establishments that offer care within the Gesy system”.

This report was not taken up by the House health committee, and there was no comment from the State Health Services Organisation (Okypy) or the health ministry, which is responsible for overseeing all establishments and businesses offering health services in the Republic.

On March 23, 2023, an addendum was added to the report, and again both documents were distributed to the relevant authorities. Again, no public response, no comments, nothing. So finally, the ombudsperson resent the report to the House health committee with the request that the report be distributed to MPs and made available to a wider audience.

Why was no action taken when such an interesting report was drafted and distributed? Because the Gesy oversight ombudsperson is not allowed to make his reports public. This is not because it is clearly stated in the legislation that established the position in the first place, but because it is not stated clearly in said legislation that he can publish it on his website. I want to repeat this, so you can see the ludicrous reason that an independent state official – established to oversee Gesy and mediate in order to help the system offer the services it was created to offer – cannot make his findings public: it is not clearly stated in the legislation that he can.

The reports do not deal with state secrets. They do not contain sensitive information that may create a problem among competing businesses. They don’t even contain personal information that may infringe the GDPR requirements of our legal framework. The reason they are not made directly public from the ombudsperson himself is a loophole in the legal framework that the health ministry does not want to fix. So, it’s up the House of Representatives to make this information available to the public and fix the loophole in the legislation. The Cyprus Greens-Citizens Cooperation is preparing a legislative proposal to fix this and other issues that have come up in the four years that this position was established.

This report now that has finally seen the light of day simply documents how the ombusdperson dealt with a specific complaint that a specific person made to his office concerning the lack of a parking space for people with disability in the apartment block where this person’s personal doctor sees patients. He created a 40-page report that documents the well established right of persons with disabilities to have access to buildings. This was distributed to the authorities, with a recommendation that the problem be remedied for this specific case. I wonder how effective this recommendation will be…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the report was made, that all the legal arguments were gathered in one official government document, that a citizen’s complaint was taken seriously and investigated, that recommendations were clearly stated in the most official fashion. But then what? How do we ensure that things actually get done? I wonder how many times such reports have truly made an impact, instead of ending up being a bureaucratic “going through the motions” document that is filed in a digital archive.

In this particular case, the most interesting information comes from the addendum to the report. Gesy responded that new legislation needs to be brought forward, that clearly states that any Gesy providers need to offer information concerning the accessibility of their building, so patients can decide.

So a government organisation has found a way to say that its not their responsibility and new legislation needs to be introduced, when the original 40-page report from the ombudsperson makes the argument that all buildings that offer services need to be accessible to all! The oversight ombudsperson tells the organisation it oversees that, according to existing legislation, it is illegal for providers of any services, both within and outside Gesy, to operate in inaccessible buildings but Gesy says it’s not our problem.

What happens now, you may ask? Well, I believe that local authorities need to step up and start overseeing all establishments within their district. Buildings that do not have final building permits should not be used for any business activity. Period. Start giving warnings and getting all buildings up to code before we lose human lives. Accessibility issues are just the tip of the iceberg but are a great way to start targeting the buildings with the biggest problems.

What will actually happen? Maybe the specific building that the original complaint concerns will be brought up to code at some point. But nobody is prepared to start a Cyprus-wide rectification process that will truly offer accessibility to all citizens. Maybe this could be a great policy proposal from all the candidates in the upcoming local elections in June 2024.

Other than that, I’m afraid local authorities, district officers, town planning and of course the interior ministry have no intention of taking this on seriously. Let alone Gesy that has to deal with many more immediate problems. But I salute the Gesy oversight ombudsperson that reopened this issue to public debate. Hopefully the efforts of his office will not be in vain…

P.S. You may have noticed that the name of the ombudsperson is just oversight ombudsperson. They forgot to add “for Gesy” in the legislation so half the name is in brackets even on their website, which was established in 2019 and has no English translation. Take a look for yourself at http://www.cas-commissioner-gesy.gov.cy.

 

Efi Xanthou is a political scientist and the Coordinator of the Interior Committee for the Cyprus Greens-Citizens Cooperation, [email protected]