Recently the Hungarian government declined to grant a 500 million forint (approx. 2.25 million USD) emergency aid for the Pető Institute, an internationally renowned institution for training and providing conductive education in early development, primarily for children whose central nervous system has suffered damage. While the Institute denies claims to its dire financial situation and maintains that its relationship with the government is sound, journalists and opposition politicians call attention to the unclear legal situation of the Institute’s valuable real estate assets and opposition members speculate that the background of the denial of funds is the government’s desire to put their hands on the building sites and villas situated in the elegant Buda district.
The situation is as murky as can be, numbers are hard to come by to support or disprove any of the above claims. Most recently the online news portal HVG Online attempted to track down evidence to make sense of the Pető Institute story – without much success. My aim here is not to establish the “truth”, nor to unravel political agendas that may or may not influence decisions, publicity and processes in the Institute’s current condition. I am more interested in where (valid or perceived) threats to disability institutions’ real estate might come from and to place current disability politics in Hungary into a historical context. I firmly believe that a historical outlook on the long-term trajectories of past events can further our understanding of such controversies, and, therefore, may help in finding solutions.
Very much real threats of government officials trying to lay a claim to valuable real estate in the hands of institutions caring for disabled children are not without precedent. Over half a century ago, the rival of András Pető in physical disability care, László Lukács fought – and won – a battle against the communist government for the Heine-Medin Post-Treatment Hospital’s buildings. This hospital was established in a process covering months before, during and after the 1956 revolution, therefore its political legitimacy was more than problematic. A brief manuscript gives insight into the political maneuvering of its director, László Lukács, as he stated:
“The Health Minister proposed that the institution belong directly to the Ministry, but I could also choose to put it under the authority of the City of Budapest instead. I chose the latter. […] The chief doctor of the city was Dr. János Vikol, who had […] firmly supported the cause of the disabled. The other reason was that I didn’t trust the leaders of the Health Ministry, I feared [undoing], a hope of the 200 leading party members with the intention of getting back the distinguished treatment of their children.”
Although maintaining the new institution and its buildings after the revolution clearly required political skills, the fact that the doctor-director could choose which authority the institution should belong to, implies the great importance assigned to the cause, leaving Lukács with a certain political independence. Meanwhile, he also had to deal with the hostility of the political elite, who felt that the establishment of the hospital would curb their privileges in childcare.
The reason for this was that the Heine-Medin Hospital opened in five buildings that previously belonged to the Rákosi Mátyás kindergarten, a childcare home for privileged party officials in the prestigious district of the Rózsadomb in the Buda hills. The houses were for the most part nationalized residences of the economic and political elite of another era. The villas were scattered in the most sought-after part of the city, among green lawns with small patches of woods and swimming pools around them. It is no coincidence that an institution founded during the 1956 revolution was established in buildings with such history: this was a small, but obvious attack against the hated political elite.
Lukács’s cause was “helped” by the fact that severe polio epidemics were sweeping through the country year by year, causing fear in parents from the members of the Ministry Council to iron workers and leaving children paralyzed by the thousands. However, as soon as polio vaccination succeeded in putting a stop to epidemics in Hungary, Lukács soon lost the overall war for his institution and after merely six years of opening its doors to exclusive disability care, the hospital had to let go of its patients and its profile in specialized care.
Since then, disability had never been visible much in Hungary, nor have issues and rights of disability made it into mainstream public discourse. In the twentieth century, no glorious war with respected war veterans ignited social and political involvement in disability care, while in the last half-century, the physically and mentally disabled were removed from sight and society in the seclusion of often remote institutions or their homes. They were not compatible with communist ideals of physical strength, production and the triumph of the socialist man over the decadence of the West. While there has been significant change for the better since 1989, people with disability have generally continued their relative invisibility and disability issues have continued to occupy a very low status on the national agenda.
There is no emergency situation similar to polio epidemics in Hungary today to ensure the heightened attention to issues of disability. On the contrary, disability care and rights found themselves among the first targets of budget cuts in a society that is becoming less and less tolerant and more and more hostile towards disabled people. Recently, a whole village, with the leadership of its MP of the governing party raised national outcry against the plan of several mentally disabled people moving to their community in a program of de-institutionalization and independent living (the MP later officially retracted his point of view). It seems that today whole communities feel comfortable in voicing their concerns over “unsightly” people and arguing that it would be inappropriate to bring disabled into a community that is hostile towards the “crazies”. The seemingly haphazard reorganization of the educational system has been making integrated education challenging for pedagogues and parents alike.
It is into this historical heritage and current context that the controversial issue of the Pető Institute enters. Fears of bankruptcy, of real estate speculations and further budget cuts to disability support and care are not only the results of current government policies and of surfacing political agendas, nor are fears of and hostility towards the disabled in Hungary. Certain events and processes in the communist era of Hungary have very long and stubbornly lasting effects (like polio epidemics on disability issues) – and not only in ways that the governing party, Fidesz, who has posited its politics and profile against that era and its governments is aware of. Any solution to the controversy surrounding the Pető Institute and more broadly speaking, disability issues in Hungary would need to include thinking and acting with long-term historical - and future – trajectories in mind.