According to the 2011 Annual Report of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the adequate community based care for people with mental disabilities continues to be one of the challenges facing Bulgaria where these people are still isolated in closed-type institutions. The long-term “far from people’s eyes” policy leads to lack of awareness, lack of understanding, fear and non-acceptance by the community. This is an additional impediment to the integration of people with mental disabilities despite the steps undertaken by the state to create protected houses and other forms of deinstitutionalized care.
Maybe the first thing to do is change the attitude, eliminate prejudice against people with mental disabilities and accept them, informally, as part of the community?
A step in this direction has been jointly made by the Home for Elderly People with Mental Disabilities in the town of Banya and the library at the town’s chitalishte which has been participating in the GLB Program since 2009.
Banya is a small resort town situated in Bulgaria’s central south region, Karlovo municipality, famous for its mineral water springs and facilities for spa tourism and treatment. The town’s population numbers about 3,500 people. Tourism is the main means of livelihood.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius Chitalishte was established in 1914. In addition to their involvement in the program, the chitalishte and the library are active to initiate a number of projects targeted at the community and publicized on the chitalishte’s website.
The Home for Elderly People with Mental Disabilities in Banya has been renovated under a project of the Social Investment Fund of the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy and is equipped to host 125 people. It is located near the town and people willing to attend the events in the library are transported by bus.
Their joint project “Work with Computers and its Impact on Elderly People with Mental Disabilities” aims to implement a modern form of integration, communication and active rehabilitation of mentally disabled people through work with ICT.
Project beneficiaries include three women from the Home with light (while demonstrating delayed speech assimilation, most of them achieve the everyday speech level and are able to converse) and moderate mental disabilities (able to perform simple practical work in case of carefully structured assignments) aged 18 – 35 years.
Their trainers are two volunteers (16 – 18 years) who have a positive attitude toward working and the library’s initiative to work with people with mental disabilities. In the words of the librarian, Tanya Hristova, this approach has proved to be helpful and has enabled communication and expansion of mentally disabled people’s social network of contacts. “Their circle of friends with whom they can communicate not only in the real but also in the virtual world (Skype, Facebook and other social networks) is gradually expanding”.
The project provides computer skills to the women from the Home: work with internet, e-mail, Skype, Google; online radio and TV, online video galleries; work with computer programs like MS Paint, MS Word, MS Publisher. Moreover, the computer classes with the volunteers support these women’s therapy: they develop their fine and general motor skills, form teamwork skills and attitudes, develop their communicative abilities, exercise their ability to acquire new knowledge and skills, make new friends.
“I like everything, really everything”, says Fanka Borisova, 32 years. She is already an advanced computer learner: she can paint in MS Paint, has her own e-mail account and writes to her new friends, uses Skype for video calls and even designs business cards using MS Word. The specialists in the Home trust her computer skills and give her the opportunity to use the office computers. They hope that the advancement of her personal qualities and the confidence in her own skills acquired during the classes conducted in the library will help Fanka and other people in the Home develop the independence they need in order to start living in the protected house in the town. This would ensure an independent way of living and social equity for them.
The benefits go beyond the women from the Home. The volunteers took part in a specialized role-playing training course which developed their empathy and communicative abilities and helped them understand that accepting different people makes them richer.