zoran andonov slikaauthor: Zoran Andonov, journalist

Few days ago, I met a mother of a child with cerebral paralysis, member of an association from Tetovo. She asked me if children with this disease will get anything with the latest measures from the Government. I told her "no, there will be no help provided for people with disabilities". She sadly looked at me and quietly said: "As before, they have forgotten us completely, they treat us as invisible, we do not exist. Everyone received some money, retirees, company workers, students and we did not. Why does it have to be like this? They are afraid to help us or they do not care at all that there are some people who really need support, people who struggle 24 hours a day. I just wonder, how long is this going to last?!”.

The anger of these families is justified. In the current situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the state, i.e. the Government, makes efforts to help people who are most under risk to be able to overcome these difficult times. This is good, it is actually Government’s responsibility to take care of its citizens and especially help those with low economic and social status. But help should be also provided to all categories of citizens. Regrettably, this is not the case. No one has an answer why and how people with disabilities were left out of the assistance during the COVID-19 crisis. Consequently, marginalized people continue to be marginalized.

Media have their own share in the entire process of marginalization of people with disabilities. In the race for latest news regarding the number of sick, the number of dead, the daily political fights between political parties, they offered very little time and space to cover information related to this category of people and their needs and expectations. Even if these groups are portrayed in the media, most often it is in relation to certain donations intended for a very small number of people with disabilities in a specific place. This is the way in which information has been spread regarding people with disabilities and other marginalized groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Persons with disabilities, in addition to women and Roma population, are another marginalized group of people who faced many challenges during the pandemic. All the shortcomings of the education system came to light. The education was put through a test, in particular the conditions it can provide to children with special educational needs, children with disabilities in terms of the right to use educational assistants, access to the internet, computer equipment, lack of appropriate learning materials, limitation of the movement of persons with disabilities. These issues, personal stories, challenges, the conditions they live in, how do they manage to get education, health and other conditions during a pandemic, failed to penetrate higher and to see the “light of the tunnel” on the media agenda. Some media, including the public service broadcaster, have set aside some room for these fellow citizens for whom the pandemic has created new obstacles in the battle with the system. Journalists themselves are under the impression that information regarding people with disabilities were reported sporadically and not frequently. Marginalized groups remained marginalized in the media, as before the pandemic crisis. "The conclusions about the media coverage of the marginalized people are not different from those we have stated before, but during the crisis the problems were even more emphasized, and marginalized people got lost in the big picture flooded with frightening news," Vesna Nikodinoska from the Macedonian Institute for Media said, summarizing the results obtained in the past period, which refer to hate speech and representation of marginalized groups in our society.

The non-governmental sector that represents the rights of people with disabilities calls for greater cooperation with the media because the need for such cooperation is mutual.

"I would like to call for co-operation among all stakeholders, including organizations representing the rights of marginalized groups. It is inevitable to cooperate, we need the media, but the media also need the civil society organizations, i.e. the persons with disabilities themselves to tell them how to properly report on their rights. One of the biggest problems in the media portrayal of these people is the approach media workers use, starting from the terminology they use to identify these people or describe some of their characteristics or rights, all the way to the general mercy approach or medical approach, as we call it, when these persons are treated as objects, not as subjects with their own human rights. Here we see the opportunity for progress and therefore we continue to affirm their rights, hence activities were undertaken together with the Macedonian Institute for Media and such activities will be undertaken in the coming period. We believe that the perception of people with disabilities can only be improved in that way, only with adequate presence and adequate representation in ways that do not degrade, but in ways that people with disabilities will have position as holders of rights", Vlado Krstevski from The National Council of Disability Organizations of Macedonia said.

Even though there are not many people with disabilities portrayed in the traditional media, their representation on social networks is increasing day by day. There are several social groups that support people with disabilities and their parents, through press releases, exchange of experiences, ideas, advice, and they are usually led by parents of people with disabilities and enthusiasts who want to help. These groups have seriously started to fill the gap in informing about the issues of people with disabilities, a gap which traditional media cannot fill every day, for both objective and subjective reasons. But, despite the positive benefits of these social groups for supporting people with disabilities, in this area, an increasingly present phenomenon has been hate speech. In the comments to a post by these support groups, we can notice and read inappropriate responses, resistance, unsubstantiated attacks, insults and mocking, and there have been politically motivated comments too. This is extremely worrying, as such hate speech has not yet been sanctioned and is therefore being misused. The journalist Mirce Adamcevski, who is also the President of the Press Complaint Commission at the Council of Media Ethics also warned about this problem.

"Although statistics indicates that hate speech is decreasing, I personally think this is not the case, but it is a matter of its moving from traditional media to social networks or, more precisely, it is contained in the comments on social networks where media publish their contents as well. Thus, the story of hate speech has no end. "Hate speech is used as an excuse for the exercise of the right to freedom of speech, but freedom of speech does not mean freedom for using of a hate speech," Mirce Adamcevski said.

In the midst of all these problems, social insecurity and poverty, "enriched" with hate speech, people with disabilities live their marginalized lives as they know and can. Whether they will emerge from this long-standing situation and get the deserved place in the society mostly depends on themselves, on their perseverance and persistence. But it also depends on all other actors in society, especially the media, which undoubtedly need to work harder and assist in the achievement of this goal.