Thoughts on disability in a new country….
Coming to Serbia to work with disabled people was very interesting because of the way that disability is viewed differently. While I sometimes assume that the U.S. lacks disability inclusion, my view definitely changed after visiting Serbia, where people with disabilities are not really seen in the community. They are not always included in public schools, they do not hold jobs, and person-first language is not a thing here. One of the first things that an American recreational therapy major learns is how to apply person-first language in conversation with disabled individuals, whereas the phrase “mental retardation” is used frequently in Serbia. Some disabled adults are even treated more like children here.
Both Sunce and Sremcica are facilities are somewhat tucked away from the big cities, which make them interesting locations to observe residents in quieter settings. However, we also did a few city outings with groups from both Sunce and Sremcica. During one outing with some of the Sunce residents, it was interesting to observe some individuals receiving strange looks from onlookers that would generally be regarded as rude in the U.S. There was another incident with a group from Sremcica, in which an older lady yelled at one of Sremcica’s users for a mistake that was not his fault. He looked upset, but we assured him that he didn’t do anything wrong and that he was okay.
It has been very interesting to see how the average Serbian is unaccustomed to interacting with individuals with disabilities, especially contrasted with the workers who are so welcoming and loving. After experiencing a bit of public hostility towards disabled individuals in Serbia, it was refreshing to go to the inclusive, accessible MP schools, which offer special features for even visually impaired residents to get around. The accessibility of many Serbian disability facilities surprised me in a great way, especially when contrasted with the less-than-welcoming attitude that the average Serbian seemed to show towards the students I interacted with.
Facilities I’ve visited so far….
And now for a look at some of the wonderful, inclusive spaces for disabled individuals that I’ve visited in Serbia! For each of the locations, I’ve provided a few helpful pictures and a description of some interesting aspects of each facility.
Sunce (which means Sun) is a day program for individuals with disabilities. Students at Sunce range in age from about 16 to 60 and come from all different levels of ability. During my time at Sunce, there were about 130 students (or “users,” as they are called). On average, about 10 students occupy a classroom at a time.
We worked at Sunce for our whole second week, and for a few days during our fourth week. The first day we were there, we took a tour of the building and got to spend a little time in each of the rooms. We learned that instead of splitting students up by age, workers at Sunce divide their “users” into rooms by their interest and functional levels. This helps their users to engage with one another and stay focused for longer.
On other days at Sunce, we got to observe the students in their daily activities. One day, all students spent the morning outside since it was nice, and were able to engage in several different games. Those who didn’t want to participate in the activities could sit out on a set of wooden risers in the shade. The games included dribbling a soccer ball through cones and tug-of-war. Many students became super involved, and it was clear that everyone was having a great time.
The second facility, Sremcica, was where we spent our third week working/observing. This is a live-in facility for people with intellectual disabilities. Users at Sremcica live there full-time and range in age from about 6 to 60. Most of the users are older and very independent. We spent some time at the facility playing soccer and we also went on some group outings. In addition, we took a little walking trip in Belgrade and stopped at some touristy locations, including the Museum of Illusions. Our final stop in Belgrade was the temple of St. Sava, where we spent a bit of time before heading to the waterfront to enjoy the sunshine. Another day we went to the Belgrade Zoo with some of the younger residents. I really enjoyed that particular outing because the other Temple students and I had already learned a few animal names in Serbian! We would say an animal name in Serbian and have the residents repeat it back in English.
We spent our fifth week in the facilities at the Milan Petrovic foundation, which includes a primary school, a secondary school and dormitory. In addition, there is a school specifically for people who have autism spectrum disorder. The primary school is for younger children, so there were many classrooms, play rooms, a library, sensory room and a gym. The secondary school and boarding school at Milan Petrovic are for older users, and offer many workshops for users to participate in. Workshop topics include embroidery, pottery, soap making, art, and gardening (among others). Art created by residents is often sold by the foundation to raise money for student programs. One interesting facility at Milan Petrovic was a transition home, or a special type of environment to prepare residents for independent living.
Camp Cenej is also under the Milan Petrovic foundation. It is further out into the countryside of Serbia, and only has about 12 users at a time. There is a house where the campers sleep and eat, and a good amount of land for recreation. The camp also has two greenhouses and a garden where fruits and vegetables are grown for campers’ meals. Like the art projects created by residents at Milan Petrovic’s main facility, surplus food is sold to the local community. About 5-7 employees assist with daily life at Cenej. It is clear that the campers look forward their activities at Cenej and truly love being there. It is also clear that the employees genuinely love what they are doing, as they take time off from their normal working schedules to spend 2 weeks at this camp!