Disability


Allstars members, all from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds themselves, gained many things from their involvement in the internet projects; the confidence to present their work to an audience of adults was one. Here am Allstar/Leo presents to an annual conference of Lions Clubs

Allstars members, all from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds themselves, gained many things from their involvement in the internet projects; the confidence to present their work to an audience of adults was one. Here an Allstar/Leo presents to an annual conference of Lions Clubs

I have many fond memories from my time – 11.1/2 years – in Romania but none more fond than my time ‘teaching English’ to a class in an industrial high school in an industrial area of the city of Suceava, an area therefore depressed after the destruction of industry following the collapse of Communism.

A few days ago someone from this class contacted me, see below. I cannot begin to write how exciting this is but I just had to blog about it.

Not the Mafia

The story behind moving to Suceava to teach was all due to my misunderstanding of a Romanian word – ‘Marfă’. I began in a ‘top’ high school, Liceul Ștefan cel Mare, when my intended 6 months stay working in a voluntary humanitarian project in nearby Siret ended. How this happened has been documented on this blog in the past. However when I suggested I wanted to teach less advantaged students there was considerable opposition from the authorities. The overall view was ‘why bother with them, you’re wasting your time, concentrate on the best schools and the brightest students’, an attitude I met in Romania many times then, to the point of causing me many personal problems at the time. Foreigners could then be given a hard time. That is changed now and followers of this blog will know I have spent substantial periods in Romania most years since I left in 2004 and have many friends there.

However, the problems were a contributing factor in my moving to Iași, where I then taught in an ‘industrial high school’ and a couple of ‘top’ schools.

A different way of ‘teaching English’

I didn’t ‘teach English’ in a conventional way; I tried to do it in a way from which my students would not only learn some English, enthusiastically, but build confidence to believe they could achieve anything they wished. This was by involving them in projects with classes in English-speaking countries, UK and Canada if I remember correctly, and subsequently helping them to get involved in volunteering, leading eventually to formation of the third Leo Club in Romania. The projects were on email, beginning with one donated ‘obsolete’ IBM laptop. No Windows – everything was done with MsDos; does anyone remember that? Eventually the class involved in the email projects called themselves the ‘Allstars‘ and went on to form what was the third Leo club in Romania and probably among those with the youngest membership anywhere – the Suceava Burdujeni Leos were then 12-14 years old. Late teens early twenties is more usual.

A ‘Messenger’ request answered

A few days ago I had a request on Messenger from Anca … (the family name I did not recognise). Usually I ignore such requests (my dislike of Facebook except in small closed groups has been well documented) but for some reason I opened the message and was delighted to see it was from my former student in the industrial high school mentioned above. The class have a Facebook closed group and Anca posted that she had ‘found’ me and asked if anyone else from that class remembered me.

What happened as a result was humbling. The general response was “How can we possibly forget?” accompanied in some cases by thanks to me for what they had achieved since, eg a lawyer, an IT specialist, an English teacher, even a tattoo artist! (I didn’t tattoo them, honest!). One was particularly amazing; she said that only a day or so previously she had been teaching her daughter a limerick I wrote for her almost a quarter of a century ago. I didn’t remember it but she had and sent it to me. I remember all the names though I knew them only by their given names (I’ve generally not put them in the photograph captions).

Last year during a short visit to Suceava I did try to find some of these former students but without success. In a way not surprising as I’ve now learnt that many of them are now in other parts of Romania and it’s quite likely some have moved abroad – so many Romanians have. Now I’m hoping that my health will allow me at least one more visit to Romania, when I’ll do my best to meet as many as possible of them in person. Meanwhile, somewhere I have the documentation for the Leo club and will try to find it, together with more of the photographs taken during activities of this wonderful group of youngsters.

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Emily and Charlotte

Catching up this morning on reading some of the blogs I follow I particularly liked a post from one of my Romanian blogging friends, Monica (mopana), who writes in both Romanian and (excellent) English – good for me to practice my Romanian. It was all the more poignant as I knew a little later I was meeting another delightfully happy young friend, Charlotte.

Charlotte, 10 years old, has severe cerebral palsy – spastic quadriplegia, so all four limbs are affected. But what a happy little girl she is, particularly when with her loving sister Emily.

I spent a lovely hour in the sun chatting with her on a near perfect English summer day. Speaking is difficult for her but with a bit of perserverence it becomes easier to understand her; she seems to have no problem understanding me.

The occasion was an annual charity bun fight at the home of other friends, from whom we buy our “very free range eggs”. I ‘do’ the posters and flyers for the event. This year it was raising money for a Mollii suit which, worn for an hour each morning, helps Charlotte have an easier day, but each year she must have a larger one at a cost of around £1,000.

Here’s the English text from Monica’s post, entitled:

Be happy

Can you see?

Can you hear?

Can you speak?

Can you walk?

Can you use your hands?

Then…

Be happy!

Others cannot

Another reason we cannot but be happy is where we live, in the Wharfe valley in what we call ‘God’s own country’, Yorkshire. Here’s a quick snap taken along the short walk from home to meet Charlotte today.

Looking over the Wharfe valley to the north

You’ll probably find me prattling on about equality, and discrimination, even more than usual over the coming month, particularly gender equality, because in the UK we have a general election in a month’s time. Although the present Government is headed for a landslide victory we do have an opportunity to cause a bit of a storm because we now have the Female Equality Party and, exciting for me, the party leader is standing in the constituency where I live. I referred briefly to her, Sophie Walker, in my previous post.

I haven’t ‘marched’ for years, 23 years to be precise when a German teaching colleague and I were pushed to the front of the column of protesting Romanian teachers which we had joined.

I’m polishing my marching boots now and honing my placarding skills. But as a starter I thought I’d give you a run-down of how and when I took up the cudgels against each type of discrimination. I might be a year or so out but not more, and gender discrimination was not the first.

Religious discrimination

I first experienced religious discrimination when I was about eight years old, though I didn’t recognise it as such at the time and what we’d now call bullying was not directed at me. I can now see there was an element of economic discrimination too as the bullying was directed at children from Roman Catholic families, who were generally even poorer than us. Even at that tender age I did not understand it and was often in trouble with the ‘protestant’ clique as I insisted on playing with the RCs.

Gender discrimination

I didn’t recognise discrimination against women until I was much older, 16 in fact. At that time I was working in a research laboratory and began to question why all the lab technicians were women, no males, but there was not one woman among the many research staff or section heads. It would not be true now but there’s still a long way to go. I eventually, in 2006, ended up working in an organisation specifically supporting and promoting the roles of women in science and technology.

Racial discrimination

I first became aware of racial (or skin colour) discrimination in the early 1960s when, between ‘real’ jobs, I worked for a short time in a coffee bar near Victoria station in London. I had a colleague, a lovely man from Balochistan (or should that be Baluchistan?) called Gulamnabi (the spelling may not be correct) and was horrified by the abuse he got from seemingly civilised customers. I used to put orange concentrate in their early morning coffee 😇 and steam it till it was too hot to drink (they were always in a rush). I’ve had many confrontations since those days.

Disability/ability discrimination

I think I first became aware of the discrimination against people with a disability in the late 1980s when, as a member of a Lions club, I assisted at sports days and in clubs for people with a disability. This culminated in my visit to Romania in 1993, initially specifically to work with children with a disability and their parents. More recently I’ve worked for a charity supporting people with sight loss and additional disabilities.

Age discrimination

I’ve never had a problem with age discrimination but I know and/or know of many people who have, particularly when looking for employment in the early 2000s. The best story I have was from applying for a job in an organisation supporting women in science and technology, when I did not respond to the date of birth question on the application form. “I see you didn’t reply to the age question,” said one of the interviewing panel. “Here we go,” I thought as I answered “No”. “Good for you,” was the response. I got the job.

Sexual orientation discrimination

Homophobia was not obvious to me before the late 1970s when I sometimes went to dinner parties where I was with a lady partner but all the other couples were male and discussions round the table made me aware of it. In some ways it became far worse when homosexual acts between men finally became decriminalised in 2004. Of course there never had been legislation making lesbian acts illegal. Oddly enough I ended up working in an organisation supporting LGBT people in 2005; really odd for me was that I was the only ‘straight’ person in the organisation, no problem for me but it was for some of my colleagues.

That sets out my battlefield for the coming month. My weapons will only be words but you all know I’m sure the English metonymic adage about the pen being mightier than ….

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

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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? (more…)

“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).

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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.