Just over twenty years ago the world was horrified by the images that emerged from Romania of emaciated disabled children and orphans living in horrific conditions in large overcrowded institutions. Under communist dictator Ceausescu, disabled children were often forcibly removed from or abandoned by their parents and were sent to inappropriate institutions hidden away from society. According to Government statistics at the time, there were no disabled children in Romania. Like many people I remember watching these news reports and seeing the images of these uncared for children and wondering what the future could possibly hold for disabled people in Romania.
Last week I visited Bucharest, the capital of Romania, and support for disabled children has come a long way. Sense International started working in Romania in 1999 and many of the first children we worked with had spent time in these now notorious institutions. At the time, there were no services available in the country for deafblind and multi-sensory impaired people and many were misdiagnosed as having severe learning disabilities with no effort being made to teach them how to communicate.
Over the past 14 years Sense International has screened over 50,000 babies for sight and hearing impairments. We have also established early intervention programmes and worked with families and deafblind children to help them learn to communicate and receive an education. Having a child that can neither see nor hear can be frightening to parents and without the correct support, learning to communicate with them can seem like an insurmountable challenge.
As well as providing practical support we have also worked hard to raise awareness and change perceptions of deafblindness. A major achievement has been that deafblindness is now legally recognised as a disability in Romania and this shows a new level of support and understanding from the Government. At an international level, Romania ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2010 and this too has been an important step forward for the rights of disabled people.
Working in Romania however still has its challenges. Around 20% of the population are living in extreme poverty and 44% in rural areas still making it hard to identify and reach deafblind people. A lack of consistency and stability also makes working with the Romanian Government a challenge. For example, in the last 18 months there have been six different Education Ministers - a far from ideal situation for an NGO trying to build lasting links.
But twenty years on from the public outcry over the treatment of disabled children in Romania, political instability and poverty are not our only challenges. The disabled children we first started to work with have grown up and we must now find new ways to support young deafblind people as they enter adulthood. At the moment, when deafblind young people leave school they have few options and often become housebound and dependent. It is essential that we along with the other NGO's that went into Romania to support disabled children now adapt to make sure that the support is there during adulthood. This is why we are developing a new programme which will help deafblind young people gain greater independence, develop work skills and have the chance to hold down a job. We will be working in partnership with schools and Government departments in Bucharest, Galati and Iasi to train young deafblind adults to ensure that they have a future and can use the communication skills we helped them develop as children to contribute to a stable economic future for themselves and their families.
There is still a long way to go in promoting the rights of disabled people and ensuring that deafblind people can access the services that they need but progress has undoubtedly been made. With the right help and support deafblind children can not only survive but thrive and it is good to be able to report on some of the positives coming out of Romania.