Disability


Two things happened in the space of about twelve hours to prompt this post. First, I spent a little time last evening with one of the tenants of the supported housing of the small charity for which I work part time. Second, I read some comments responding to the latest post on Australian photographer Leanne Cole’s blog, which I follow from my photo blog.

I spent the time with Gordon, completely blinded and brain damaged in an accident when he was young. One of several of the tenants who have been known to say “I’m not disabled; I just can’t see”. But what was he doing last evening? Scaling the climbing wall at a local leisure centre while I watched safely from below (taking pictures and making a video clip).

Gordon, blind and with severe brain damage, nearing to top of a climbing wall on 27 June

Gordon, blind and with severe brain damage, nearing the top of a climbing wall on 27 June

Comments on Leanne’s blog postulated that we now treat people with a disability better than we used to. That, in general, is undoubtedly true, but they are still discriminated against quite disgracefully.

Just one example, the response of a decision maker at the local authority on being told that a tenant needed more support to get out of the house more regularly: “Well many elderly people don’t get out at all”!

I’ve been completely hooked by blogging but I’ve never felt the urge to create a Facebook page and, although I have a Twitter account, the only thing that is tweeted, automatically, is a new post here.

As far as Facebook is concerned, I have a strong aversion to it – born of my wife’s announcements like “?? says she’s sitting in ?? celebrity restaurant drinking her seventh vodka and ?? (celebrity chef) has just spoken to her” and then shows me a picture of said ?? obviously very drunk in said restaurant. Who cares?

Poster promoting the new Wilberforce Trust 'Living & Learning Zone' blog, Facebook page and Twitter

However, for promoting an organisation it’s a different matter so, having recently created a blog for a particular activity of the small charity for which I work, I’ve gone the whole hog and also created a Facebook page and a Twitter account for it. Now I’m getting out a flyer promoting the three communications media to all local libraries, community centres, etc.

The blog is very simple, it is just a weekly update of the activities in our specialised community centre, catering for people with sight loss and additional disabilities, posted every Monday as a reminder for the activities during the following week.

The Facebook page is used to post very short reports of activities with one or two photographs.

As for Twitter, I’ve now got participants in the courses and other activities doing live tweets during the sessions.

There have been some very interesting and helpful posts from WordPress in the past couple of weeks; I was particularly taken by one describing how a magazine, Beatroute, had used the Oxygen theme to make a ‘blog’ version of the magazine.

I’ve been pondering for some time how to distribute ‘electronically’ the quarterly newsletter I produce for the charity for which I work. Sending PDFs isn’t really satisfactory. The ‘blog’ magazine seems the ideal solution though it will be a lot more work than just turning my newsletter InDesign files into PDFs.

It’s worth mentioning that the text here is not in the typeface which is default for the theme. The default text is a seriffed typeface – like this

typeface

 – which can be very difficult for people with sight loss to read. I also bumped the size up a bit and immediately got some ‘thanks’ messages from people who would not be considered to have a ‘visual impairment’.

However, ‘electronic’ communication is often much better for people with sight loss as the computer and other devices can make things much easier, including of course speaking a text. Apple have excelled in this.

“What’s with the ‘mafia’ in that factory?”, I asked my companion. Or, rather, what I actually said was “Ce este cu ‘mafia’ la fabrica asta?”, necessarily exercising my newly-acquired broken Romanian in my first few months as a volunteer in Romania. This was May 1993.

My companion in the train compartment was my landlady, who had kindly accompanied me on a train journey from Siret, in the far north of Romania, to Focsani, 300 kilometres south, to what I had been told was “The best factory for BCA building blocks in Romania”. We were now on the return journey.

Raluca, Alina and Ramona, l to r, with Ancuta behind. Four of the 'Bunnies', my delightful special needs class from School no.11, Suceava, in 1994. They are wearing T-shirts from a special needs school in Pensacola, Florida, with which the Bunnies did an email project (despite the headmaster's attitude which was that I was wasting my time trying to do such a thing with them. He had to eat his words, but more of that in a future post about the delights of teaching English in Romania.

Raluca, Alina and Ramona, l to r, with Ancuta behind. Four of the ‘Bunnies’, my delightful special needs class from School no.11, Suceava, in 1994. They are wearing dandelion coronets we made on the day, and T-shirts from a special needs school in Pensacola, Florida, with which the Bunnies did an email project (despite the headmaster’s attitude which was that I was wasting my time trying to do such a thing with them. He had to eat his words, but more of that in a future post about the delights of teaching English in Romania).

She didn’t speak English but, as a book-keeper and someone I already felt I could trust after living two or three months with the family, she was an invaluable companion on an expedition to purchase building blocks for a new ‘half-way house’ to be built by the charity I was working with as a volunteer in Siret, for teenagers coming out of the then infamous institution – the camin/spital (hostel/hospital) – in Siret.

A big bag full of bank notes

Purchasing building materials in Romania in 1993 was not a case of picking up the phone, placing an order, waiting for delivery and an invoice to be subsequently paid, as I was used to in the UK. It was necessary to go to the producer, select the product, see it loaded on a freight train back to where it was required, and pay in cash on the spot. The necessary cash, in the ‘old’ Romanian currency – lei (lions) – was not a few bank notes in my pocket; it was a very large sports bag full of notes of the maximum denomination. I cannot now remember the actual amount, but it was millions and millions of lei in a heavy, zipped, padlocked bag (carried by a very nervous tyke).

“Everyone knows about the mafia”, was the response in perfect English, not from my companion but from a tall, slim, elegantly attired lady sitting opposite. The smile was friendly, but there was also a hint of some joke I had not seen and an overlay of amusement in her eyes.

It wasn’t unusual to meet an English speaker on a train then – there were a lot of British, American, Canadian and other English-speaking volunteers in Romania in the early 90s – but to come across a Romanian speaking near-perfect English was very unusual; the usual second language for well-educated Romanians was French (ignoring the Russian which they had been obliged to learn). Opening up Western tv programmes to the population changed that and then internet came and every child I ever met wanted to learn English. What a wonderful situation for a teacher of English – pupils desperate to learn.

You don’t have to be a teacher

Back to my new acquaintance – Felicia: she turned out to be the Inspector for English for the ‘county’ (judet) where I was living – Suceava. Eventually she pleaded with me to come to ‘teach’ English in what she described as the top high school – Liceul ‘Stefan cel Mare’ (‘Stephen the Great’ High School) – in the ‘county town’ of Suceava. “I’m not an English teacher”, I said, though I had taught English, for short times, to immigrant children in south London and to adult Spaniards at the Berlitz school in Madrid. “It doesn’t matter”, she countered. “We have excellent teachers but have not and never have had a native English speaker”. She was very persuasive and we finished the journey with me having agreed to extend my 6 month stay in Romania and go to ‘teach’ in Suceava. How things went from there is another chapter, sometime; suffice it to say for years more I taught English all over Romania and ended up married – to a Romanian history teacher

The Mafia

Oh, I’d almost forgotten the mafia. “The word you were hearing, was ‘marfa’ not mafia”, Felicia chided me. “They were talking about the product you wanted – ‘marfa’ is Romanian for ‘produce’.

“Mind you, you almost certainly encountered a mafia”, she added with another wry smile.

***

This addition to my ‘About’ was prompted not by something from Romania, but from another tyke (Yorkshireman for any of my readers who – unlikely – don’t yet know this dialect tag which we proudly bear) who has gone ‘self-sufficient’, building a strawbale house, in Poland (despite the post title, it’s in English):

http://winkos.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/przepraszam-nie-mowie-po-polsku/

I just love where blogging takes me and I was surprised to learn that Eddy’s story has so many things in common with mine, including being lured into teaching English. My own wanderings into strawbale building will have to wait for a future post.

From time to time I’ll do a bio post like this, in no chronological order, and eventually add it to the pages under ‘About’ above.

I would like to introduce you to some remarkable people, having a go (yesterday) at something many of you ‘foodies’ reading this might do from time to time – making bread. Imagine doing that if you could not see, or had one or more additional severe ‘disabilities’ – physical or mental. Many of the people here, if they can speak but several of them cannot, will say “I’m not disabled, I just cannot see”. Their enthusiasm, zest for life and willingness to tackle anything, is an inspiration to me. As usual, just click on the first picture to see a slide show with a description of each picture.

I have mentioned that I work for a small charity in York (York, UK that is). As York’s oldest charity, the Wilberforce Trust has been supporting people with sight loss in and around York since 1833 (the year William Wilberforce’s died); it was set up – originally as the Yorkshire School for the Blind – in his memory that year.

Now, with a number of houses offering supported accommodation and a variety of services to the larger community, it specialises in supporting people with sight loss who have additional severe disabilities, including learning disabilities.

The introduction to bread-making is one of a number of activities  – a social club/games night, art activities, using computers and internet for people with sight loss, cooking, flower arranging, personal safety courses, and more – which take place in the ‘Living & Learning Zone’, a specialised community centre in the Wilberforce head office in Huntington, York, where I work a couple of days a week

Not all the participants in this session are shown; those who are know me very well so gladly allow me to take their picture; some who have newly joined Wilberforce activities did not yet want their photo taken.

I’d add that the supporters pictured here, both Wilberforce staff and volunteers, are remarkable people too.

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