In this entry about minorities I intend to focus on the situation of people with mental and combined handicap in the context of the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. More concretely I will focus on the difference between community institution in the Czech Republic (sheltered housing) and community institution in the UK (L’Arche). I chose this topic because my occupation is social care worker in the sheltered housing in the Charity, which is also a community place, where I have been working for more than five years. During this time my career went from a volunteer through personal assistant and now I work at the leading position. All my posts offered a different view on the situation of people with certain physical and mental handicap. I am also very much interested in the L’Arche community which is very popular and exists on all continents and in 35 countries except Czech Republic.
What strikes me as the most topical issue today is the fact, that calling disabled people is in fact stigmatizing. It is enough to talk about someone as “disabled” and one is made disabled. This was seen on the results of children´s tests in the PBS Frontline series. When the teacher talked positively about the group – the group had better results than the same group when being told to be stupid and inferior (because of the color of their eyes). I think that this is also the case of children from special schools. Many of them would not be there if they were given a chance and were made motivated by the teacher, parents and surrounding. Some children just need to be more cared for and require more time spent with the teacher before he or she reaches results same or even better than the other students. If people and children with a certain disability, be it physical or mental, were given a chance, they would discover hidden potential within them. In my career as a social care worker for people with mental and combined disabilities, I can very easily describe that it is not their handicap that make people inferior, but rather their inability to cope with it. There are people who are motivated, and although they are handicapped, their effort is seen and these people are sometimes even capable of greater achievement than the “healthy”, “normal” society. The faulty view that people with a handicap are less capable or inferior stems from the fact that they are very little integrated into Czech school system and society generally – there is still the remnant of the communist regime – to shun them, to shut them somewhere where they will not be seen and will not bother the “correct” society. Children go into special schools and stay there and thus are kept segregated and thus it is so difficult to see them as normal in the sense of having the same value because in adulthood human is less capable to adapt new views about those people. The majority is not used to see them and encouraged to accept them as “normal” or rather equal and thus tends to keep them away. One of the possible means to change this is community instutions.
Sheltered housing which I work in was established in 2001 and is now home for more than 30 people with mental and combined disablities. Even though sheltered housings offer a very different approach (I dare say much better approach) than for example assylums, the vision of Jean Vanier´s L’Arche (also a community institution) is also very interesting.
“After a visit to a mental asylum in France, Vanier was moved by the appalling living conditions he witnessed to take unprecedented action: He bought a derelict house in a village outside Paris in 1964 and invited two patients to live with him in fraternity and equality. He called their home “L’Arche” — a play on both “ark” and “bridge” in French — and thus inspired a movement of 146 similar communities that now exist in 35 countries.For this radical at the time recognition of the essential humanity and dignity of the disabled, as well as his promotion of interfaith dialogue, Vanier has received the prestigious Templeton Prize. The $2.1 million award for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s breadth of spiritual dimensions” has previously been awarded to Mother Teresa, L’Archebishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Vanier, now 86, still lives in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France.” (“A well deserved honour for Jean Vanier”).
I believe that this excerpt illustrates very nicely the commitment of Jean Vanier to the cause. The greatest difference in my view and experience is that workers (personal assistants) in sheltered housing in the Czech Republic are still considered employees, whereas people in L’Arche community are said to live with the people with disabilities and not be on the outer rim – opposite side – the idea of L’Arche is to eliminate as much as possible the dichotomy between a worker and a client. The approach of L’Arche is that employees are not the half-gods that help the people who are not so good, so healthy, so economically effective – all aspects so much adored in society today. The idea of L’Arche is that assistants and disabled people are equal, that there is not an inherent difference which makes one group better and one worse than the other. The idea is that although disabled people are not so capable, it does not make them less human, inferior than the “healthy” society. Although the L’Arche community is probably the most progressive, I must say that I like the sheltered housing model more. The greatest difference between L’Arche and sheltered housing is the fact that in L’Arche the workers are more of a roommates to the disabled (cared for) people, whereas in sheltered housing the difference or line between worker and a client is a clear one – which in someone´s view is not good, but in my view is not wrong at all. One such aspect is that for disabled people, because of their naturalness (which I shall elaborate on later) they are very prone to easy fall in love and express their felings. Sexual energy is one of the strongest drives in human life. Seeing the asistant being capable of almost everything and anything is making him/her virutally a half-god in the eyes of the disabled person. The disabled one who sees things, which are for an average human normal and easy, as a hard tasks starts idolizing such a person. Although that the plight for equality is getting more nad more intensive, there is still a certain difference which cannot be so easily overcome. A female colleague of mine experienced such a situation. A young man with mental disability fell in love with her because they were in a (although working) relationshiop on a daily basis. She was living with disabled people in a community and although that the relationships between “them” were encouraged, the gap between assistants and those cared for is still existing. He was very straight-forward and did not care for the women from withing the circle of similarily handicapped as he was. This gets us to the problem of making difference. How low has the IQ be in order to disable someone? Anything above or below 90-109 average IQ points makes one disabled or extraordinary (“IQ Classifications”). But how can be a disabled or somone extraordinarily inteligent be labeled solely on the basis of his or hers inherent IQ level? Should not be people measured more complexly and according to their character and not their inherent, given assets? Such an approach would of course be much more fair but still is in my point of view utopic, because although that people do not always find a a partner with the very same values (be it psychological, intelectual, physiological etc), it is probably true, that one finds someone who is equal – the more equal the better. An averagely inteligent human does not want to have as a partner someone who is too distant from him – too much inteligent or too little. This is the reason that I consider sheltered housing as a more benefitial model for both – the caring and the cared for. Nevertheless, Vanier´s vision is to create a community not a division to workers/clients, so common in Czech social system and even in the sheltered housing institution. This vision stems from the belief that all people are equal, and that all people are capable of helping others, one way or another.
Now I would like to focus on the differences that I consider worth mentioning between people working as assistants and the people that assistants should care for. In my job I experience on the daily basis lessons from people with disablities – one of the most important for today´s people is naturalness. It seems to me that people today are too much cautious about what they do, what they say and even think, because today everything is connected and it happens more and more often that one may be fired because of what one says on social media. People with disabilities, specifically people objectively having lower IQ levels (mental disability) do not think about so deep consequences. They are teaching us that the naturalness (when sincere) is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. I think that it is still more and more difficult for people to be candid to other people because of the fact that it may cause them trouble. Is this really the case? Is it not better to fight the fear in order to restore the natural human condition of honesty, frankness and outspokenness? I believe it is much more better for anybody to not need to be always aware of what others think about one because of what one says. It also works vica versa – people I work with are very outspoken and when they do not like what I do or say, they do not just nod as some people politely would, but readily ask and oppose to what they think is not right, even though that their opinion is usually not very sophisticated, because of their IQ, but this is precisely the thing that distinguishes people with belief in equality of disablied people and people who see them as inferior – the fact that someone has lower IQ than average does not make one less human. This is I believe the most important statement that should be emphasized. Today´s society I believe is very racional, admires intelligence and education, but the fact is that some people, with certain illnesses or (dis)abilities are just not capable of such achievements – nevertheless the case is that they are counted and viewed as same people and equal to those who have high IQ, abilites, education etc. What matters is I believe trying itself, potential to reach things although one achieves it with much more strain and effort than the healthy one. The inherent quality of beauty, ability or intelligence does not play any major role.
Now I would like to focus on some data concerning issues as housing, employment, discrimination etc., provided by the UK Government and compare it to the Czech Republic and my experience as a social care worker. According to the UK Government statistics, “The prevalence of disability rises with age. Around 6% of children are disabled, compared to 16% of working age adults and 45% of adults over State Pension age.“ (“Disability facts and figures.”). This is in my point of view a very topical issue not only in the UK, but anywhere where social system focuses on the elderly people and their well-being. Modern technology and medicine prolongs life span and thus generates a rising number of people above productive age. This is a positive issue, but the negative is that for example in Czech social system the ability to look after the elderly and infirm is not very developed. It is virtually impossible to find an acomodation in a hospice (this I know from my own experience). My great-grandmother became ill and it was impossible to lok after her in the home surrounding, but to find a place in a hospice for her took many months full of stress and uncertainty.
Living standards: “19% of individuals in families with at least one disabled member live in relative income poverty, on a before housing costs basis, compared to 15% of individuals in families with no disabled member.“ (“Disability facts and figures.”). In Czech social system the disabled member is entitled to claim benefits – in my sphere (people with mental handicap), there are four possibilities according to the stage of one´s handicap (from light to severe). The contribution is 800 (a little lower IQ than the average population), 4000, 8000 and 12 000 Czech crowns for those in need of daily and all-time care. Although that this benefit may seem rather high, the fact is that all parents (who usually care for their adult handicapped chldren) has to stay at home with them and the only breadwinner is the father (usually) thus making the whole family to live below standard level of income.
Employment: “According to the Labour Force Survey, disabled people are now more likely to be employed than they were in 2002, but disabled people remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people. In 2012, 46.3% of working-age disabled people are in employment compared to 76.4% of working-age non-disabled people. There is therefore a 30.1 percentage point gap between disabled and non-disabled people, representing over 2 million people. The gap has reduced by 10 percentage points over the last 14 years and has remained stable over the last two years despite the economic climate.“ (“Disability facts and figures.”). The employment issue is one very relevant today. People with handicap are naturally not so capable and able of effectiveness so much desired today in a world focused on effectivity and high economic contribution – who is not contributive for the state or company is automatically seen as inferior. Nevertheless, in past ten years there has been a great shift and development in sheltered workshops. It has to be acknowledged that the country like UK has a long history of Charity and caring for people with disabilities, whereas Czech Republic began a more progressive approach only after the Velvet revolution.
Concerning discrimination, the UK Statistics say: “Disabled people are significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than non-disabled people. In 2008, 19% of disabled people experienced unfair treatment at work compared to 13% of non-disabled people. Around a third of disabled people experience difficulties related to their impairment in accessing public, commercial and leisure goods and services.” (“Disability facts and figures.”). This is unfortunaly true, because as mentioned above, the society which is encouraged to the highest economical gains will always see those incapable of such efficency as inferior and redundant. I would say that it is very important to start viewing people with disabilities not as inferior, but as different. As mentioned above, handicapped may not be so effective concerning material efficency, but their approach towards life, their naturalness and frankness can be at times much more important for the society than material contributions.
In my essay I tried to illustrate the approach of community institutions (L’Arche and sheltred housing) and also the situation in the UK and in the Czech Republic from my point of view as a social care worker. I showed that people in L’Arche may feel a greater sense of belonging and equality than for example people in sheltered housing, but because of the merging of assistants with disabled people there can arise many difficult situations which may endanger the life in a community – on the other hand, sheltered housing where the line between a worker and a client is very obvious, the client always feels the stigma of being “different” from the worker. I also ofocused on the data provided by the UK government concerning housing, employment and discrimination and tried to compare it to my experince in the Czech Republic. I also mentioned the shift in past 25 years in Czech Republic, the transformation of assylums and the trend in developed countries to transform large instutions into smaller communities. Problem in the Czech Republic is that after so long a spell of communism when assylums was all that was available for people with a handicap, the journey towards no assylum society is much more diffucult than for example in the UK, where there is a longer history of care for people with disabilities. I would also like to emphasize once more that assimiliation of handicapped into “normal” soicety is the most important thing (transformation of assylums that are far from civilisation into sheltered housing and communities within the centres of the cities). Finally it is important to say that the more one sees a “different” group, the more is one capable of accepting them – unfortunately this works also vica versa. In Czech Republic, general public is not used to seeing disabled people and thus they still carry the stigma of inferiorioty in the eyes of the major population. Once again, what should be admired is not the “given” – beauty, strength, inteligence, color etc., but on the opposite – how is one capable of using what one has got – instead of just having it. The same applies to disability – being born with a certain handicap should not be an automatic way to social system and stigmatization. What makes one a human is not what he or she is born, but what one makes of him/herself.
“A well deserved honour for Jean Vanier.” Editorial. The Montreal gazette, Postmedia Network Inc. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015
“IQ Classifications.” Assessment Psychology Online. n.p. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015