Thursday, June 22, 2017
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On a holiday in Bratislava last summer, Mary de Paor visited two learning disability centre.

Post Office personnel in distant parts of the world sometimes confuse Ireland with Iceland, but Slovakia has a far worse identity problem: Slavic…Slavonic…Slovenian…Czechoslovakian. There it is—just east of Vienna. The Czech and Slovak federation separated in 1993, four years after their ‘velvet revolution’. The Slovak Republic has 5½ million people in an area about half the size of our island. Slovakia, too, has long been politically overshadowed by stronger nations—Austrians, Hungarians and Czechs. They are seen as more easy-going than their Czech neighbours; they have strong national pride and religious practice, and a love of song.

On my first visit to Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava, in March 1987, the grimy vestiges of winter snow still lurked on the roads and the trees were leafless. My own prejudgements of socialist life greyed my impressions too; the whole environment seemed drab and rigid—the remnants of the old city crowded out by tasteless concrete monoliths, the architecture and murals of socialism, and even (I thought) spiritless faces among the citizens. But Slovak friends showed us gracious hospitality. Down-at-heel apartment block entrances belied the comfortable flats inside, furnished with great taste. There was almost universal resentment and frustration at the oppressive Russian army presence and restrictions on economic activity and enterprise. Shops in Bratislava in 1987 made a sad contrast to the opulent displays in Vienna’s emporia and street markets, only 50km beyond the Danube.

Last summer we were invited to a wedding in Slovakia. My husband was due at a conference in Žilina (Slovakia’s second city) a fortnight later, so we and our son took the opportunity for a holiday in Bratislava. Although Slovakia is still ‘finding its feet’ as a young democracy and may not yet be a match for the ‘Celtic Tiger’, I found impressive changes since my first visit a decade earlier. There is more colour, a much greater choice of goods for sale, and a look of lightened shoulders among the citizens. Bratislava’s old city area is being restored with pride and imagination. One thing remains unaltered—the incredible hospitality of our Slovak friends.

When I casually asked our hostess if she knew anyone connected with learning disability, Nadja got me copies of Informácie (the Frontline of Slovakia) and organised escorted visits to two centres. My visits were on-the-go, I didn’t take notes, and my communication skills in Slovak consist of miming and repeating ‘ahoj’ (sounds like ‘ahoy’—conveniently, it means both hello and goodbye!). So I have to qualify my impressions below with the caveat that they are just that, impressions.

My escorts were Nadja’s colleague Vladimir Ráček and his son Martin, each claiming that the other spoke better English, each an excellent interpreter. Our first call was to a special school, where their son/brother Štefan is a pupil. Osobitná Pomocná Škola Hálková is a facility built to ’sixties-style functionality. I was a bit apprehensive when I saw white-coated staff (my old prejudice against Soviet images dies hard), but that mis-impression was erased by the generous welcome of Editá Žákovičová, the deputy director of the school. Before I left an hour later, with several small gifts of the pupils’ craftwork, I saw every classroom, was introduced to teachers and children, saw older pupils reading, watching videos or doing woodwork, and the younger children having a snack during their ‘sos beag’. Ms Žakovičová described the staff as ‘fanatics of special education’—which I confidently translate as passionate advocates, fully committed to their work and pupils. They are proud of the community support they receive, for example the involvement of the International Women’s Club in Bratislava at their annual festival. I saw a snapshot album of dramas and PE displays (a wide corridor on one floor of the school efficiently doubles as a gym, with apparatus on one wall and soft mats below). One storey of the building also houses a separately administered facility, which (if I understood correctly) is for pupils with dyslexia, remedial classes, etc. Pupils in the special education school were aged from 6 to 18, and the pupil-teacher ratio looked much more favourable than my experience of Irish special schools—perhaps 8:1. There was a time-out comfy-cushion for one temporarily forlorn pupil, and individual attention was evident in every classroom.

We were running a bit late, so from the special school Professor Ráček drove me across town by the special shortcut he uses to drive Štefan to school each day. Our next port of call was in the old town, near the castle and Slovakia’s new parliament building. Ústav Sociálnej Starostlivosti pre Mládež a Dospelých (Institute of Social Care for Young People and Adults) is a day centre and sheltered workshop. It was 24 June, St John’s Day, so we joined the office celebrations for Director Dr Ján Škott’s name-day—Slovak hospitality becomes truly extraordinary on name-days! Our visit—I was just a curious, unknown foreign visitor to their city—began with brandy, beautifully warmed lemon tart, fruitcake and coffee! (Had I thought of the day that was in it, I should have arrived with fresh flowers—the custom for saints’ days, and for weddings and graduations). Dr Škott doesn’t speak English. (He has the right instincts though; we ran into him that evening in Bratislava’s new Irish pub!) My fluent guide was his colleague Viera Andreánska, who greeted me with: ‘From Ireland? You must know our good friend John O’Gorman.’ Small world!

We walked around the centre. Some adults were having their main meal in a small dining room; others were working at a table in the next room, folding and filling matchboxes. As in Ireland, a lot of imagination and enterprise is needed to find suitable work projects, and long-term contracts are difficult to secure. Work at the centre has included preparing carpet and fabric sample cards, and hospital gauze packs (until management realised they had captive workers with a bit of free time on night-duty in the hospital!). Work space was limited, not purpose-built, but the environment was bright and companionable. Then we walked down the street to a recently opened group home, in an imaginatively refurbished large house. It had been a comfortable family home confiscated by the state when the owners fled during the old political régime. Now, my guides explained, it had been acquired by the Christian League for the Mentally Handicapped in Slovakia. As well as several double bedrooms for residents and one respite bedroom, there were an exercise workout room, a pottery workroom and a costume storeroom for Javorček. They’re understandably enthusiastic about Javorček, a folk dance group founded in 1992 for some of the adults at the Centre. Last year they performed as equal partners with the Bezanka folk ensemble at an international folklore festival in Belgium.

I have also learned about services in Slovakia from Informácie, the bimonthly magazine of Slovakia’s Association for Assistance to the Mentally Handicapped (ZPMP). (There are English abstracts of key articles on the back cover!) Formed in 1980, the Association is ‘a non-governmental organisation which aids all people with mental handicap and their families’. It has 40 local parents-and-friends-type branches throughout the country. The magazine covers familiar topics: good practice, clients’ pages, pictures of workshops and horticultural centres, supported employment and special schools. Of course, we share the same concerns in our efforts to advocate for our clients and family members with learning disability. My impression is that Slovak services are developing away from an almost totally state-run system toward an environment in which ‘non-governmental organisations’ (voluntary service providers), such as the Christian League, can develop their role in expanding and humanising service possibilities. In Ireland our voluntary organisations, which once provided the only services, are now also forging closer partnerships and service agreements with the state funding bodies.

Slovakia has a strong pride in folk tradition, music and the arts. ZPMP has sponsored nationwide exhibitions of artwork by people with learning disabilities. There is a nine-day September festival in Žilina at which nearly 200 participants with learning disabilities and 150 young people from local secondary schools join for what Informácie’s translator charmingly terms ‘the Jollyworkshop Festival of Creativity and Fancy’. Now, there’s an idea for my next visit to Slovakia, and who knows, I might run into John O’Gorman there!