Raising Awareness of Disability
Student Ilie was itching for a challenge during a recent training program to raise awareness about the problems facing people with disabilities. His task was to cross a cluttered room to retrieve an empty bottle – blindfolded.
Goaded by fellow participants, he pulled himself along the office table, stumbling a few times and bumping into chairs. The experience lasted less than five minutes, but Ilie tried to understand what it could be like to be blind for a lifetime.
One of my Peace Corps site-mates, Danny, who is an English Education volunteer, and I were excited to be among those watching. Several months earlier, just as he and I were hitting the mid-point in our service, we’d agreed to team up on an anti-discrimination project together with my Moldovan NGO partners. We’d round up the most motivated teenagers we could find and help them write a killer grant proposal. An 800 Euro gift from the Academy of Central European Schools would fund whatever project the students wanted to pursue.
We found a great group of students — Mariana, Ilie, Elena, Ion, Vanya and Dumitriţa. Sure enough, they succeeded and won funding to combat discrimination against people with disabilities in Gagauzia, the small Russian-speaking autonomous region of Moldova.
The Sunday activity at the Miras-Moldova office, where Ilie wore the blindfold, was one of several we then helped organize to give our local students a sense of what it means to live with a disability. We partnered that day with coordinators from the organization “Motivaţie,” who made a long drive from Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, to lead the training session.
We learned from the students that Moldovans are often uncomfortable speaking about disabilities. Many people do not understand how to conduct themselves around or support others with special needs. “People with disabilities don’t just need physical support – they need good relationships,” Mariana said. “They are not accepted by society. Strangers will assume that they are stupid. For example, if a person with disabilities wants to buy something and he or she is with a friend, the employee will ask the friend.”
“My aunt hasn’t been able to walk since childhood,” said another student, Dumitriţa. “She has had 18 operations. They helped, and now she can take small steps with crutches, but most of the time she stays in bed. She has an electric wheelchair but has only been to the regional capital five times in her life. She depends on other people to help take care of her.”
In late November, the students implemented three trainings for local high school audiences, explaining how to offer help to and communicate effectively with people with disabilities.
“I hope that the trainings helped the students realize that people with disabilities are, first of all, people,” said Vanya. Experiencing for themselves what it feels like to be disabled makes it more likely they “won’t hurt the feelings of disabled people,” he said.
Gavril Calpac came from a nearby village on his crutches to participate in the high school trainings. A powerlifter in his early 20s, quick to smile and opinionated, Gavril joined in to represent individuals with disabilities. He impressed the students by showing them the many awards and medals he has won in sports championships.
While students were looking at the awards, he took a towel and a sizeable nail from a plastic bag. “Who thinks he can bend this nail? Does anyone want to try?” Gavril asked. When no one came forward, he shrugged, wrapped the spike in the cloth and began to bend it. In only a few seconds, he bent the nail in half, demonstrating that people with disabilities can not only do things – they can excel at what they do.
Sixty students have participated in the trainings. The greatest benefit so far, though, may have been for the student leaders.
For Ilie, putting on the blindfold opened his eyes to the struggles of people with disabilities, just as it did for his partner Mariana. She was asked during the training to try traversing Miras-Moldova’s office on crutches, which she did clumsily. Both students said these experiences, even more than the PowerPoint presentations and formal discussions, helped them grasp the meaning of living with a disability. For other young Moldovans, the transformation may begin with watching a film, volunteering or making a new friend. However they are learning about disabilities, their eyes are beginning to open, too.
As for Danny and me – we’ve had the privilege of both guiding and learning from awesome people. The spirited students showed us just how much we can get done with the right people and the right perspectives. We agreed when they quoted figure skater Scott Hamilton in their presentation: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”