Monday, May 19, 2014

A Misconception

Life in Denmark was good, as I’m sure you all read in my last post. But with how much I enjoyed my time in Denmark, I must note that I almost decided not to go to Denmark at all. Back in January and February, during my unsettled month, I had a lot of second thoughts about spending a month in Denmark. This doubt was triggered by a couple conversations with people in Germany. These well-meaning people, who wanted me to see the best of disability provisions in Europe, informed me that Denmark offers free prenatal testing to all pregnant women. Thus, the number of babies born with Down Syndrome has significantly decreased in the past decade or so due to abortions following a prenatal diagnosis. The perception of Denmark and the government was that it is their goal to eradicate Down Syndrome from society. 

This was extremely disheartening to hear and I began to look into alternative countries. However, it dawned on me slowly that, assuming what these people said about Denmark was true, project work in Denmark would open my eyes to a whole different issue I had yet to explore this year. Prenatal testing, its connections to people with special needs, and the mindset of a society that heavily prioritizes a woman’s choice are highly relevant topics and aspects of my project I may have missed out on had I not traveled to Denmark. 

I did quite a bit of reading on prenatal testing while in Denmark and I brought up the subject with nearly everyone I spoke to. I am happy to report that the negative perception that people in Germany have of Denmark is not reality. What I actually found is a country very much in tune to the needs of people with special needs and an adequately funded social welfare system that does its best to provide for people. 

I want to highlight one organization, Lavuk, that I found quite impressive. This organization’s whole mission is to create meaningful spare time activities for adults with disabilities. One of the main supervisors I spoke with said, “It’s my job to make everyday special and fun.” How awesome is that!? Lavuk is open in the evenings Monday to Friday and transportation is provided to the facility and events located elsewhere. They have more than 200 members who regularly participate in activities offered during the week. 

The activities are completely varied. They have music events at the center, art and sewing time, sports activities, and of course movies and video games available. They also serve dinner for anyone who would like to join. They go horseback riding and bowling and even offer six or seven overnight trips each year. So, how is all of this paid for? It’s really quite interesting. When an individual requests to become a member of Lavuk, staff members get together and compose a proposal to send to the municipality. It is the municipality, basically the city level, that manages the budget for people with disabilities in their community. The municipality then approves for funds to be allocated to the individual. Some members attend Lavuk five days a week, others only one or two days, this is all based on how much funding they are given. Of course, the funding is not unlimited. If an individual with special needs is already receiving funds to live in a residential home, it might be more difficult to receive money to attend activities at Lavuk as well. If an individual lives at home, funding might come more easily. From what I heard though, the goal of both Lavuk and the municipality is to work together to meet the needs of the individual as best they can. 

Following my initial visit to Lavuk, I was invited to come back for their live music event on a Friday night. It was a happening place! There was a band, with a few members who had disabilities, playing great music. A number of people were dancing, many of them with Down Syndrome I might add. I could have predicted they would be on the dance floor. :) Others were finishing up their dinner, staff members were ensuring that those in wheelchairs were comfortable and had a good view of the action, and others were visiting with their peers, enjoying a cup of coffee. After dinner there was a snack bar set up as well. People lined up to buy an ice cream bar, a bag of chips, or a nice cold Carlsberg beer. I sat down and chit chatted with Trine and Claus, while others came over and shook my hand throughout the evening. We listened to the music and talked about traveling, food, Denmark, movies, and music. It was good fun!


On the way home that night, I was really moved by what good work Lavuk is doing. The friendly, welcoming, and loving staff members are all about creating fun, social time for people with special needs. Think about this for a minute, all of us “typical” people have the ability to organize our own spare time. We can go to the movies and effortlessly buy popcorn. We can call up our friends and meet for coffee. We can ride bikes and go shopping, you name it. By the time we are teenagers we are completely independent. We are capable of organization, transportation, and any other logistics that arise. None of this is true for most people with disabilities, especially people in wheelchairs and even more severely, people in wheelchairs who can’t feed themselves or communicate. But these individuals have the right to social activity too! They shouldn’t just have to sit at home after work (if they do go to work) because they have certain limitations. Lavuk is one such organization that makes it happen. I was impressed and deeply moved by their efforts and the compassion and joy that staff members have at their job. They make sure everyone is cared for, loved, and included. It is a safe and clean environment where individuals can drink a beer, buy a candy bar, use the computers, play video games, watch movies, and just generally be stimulated by their peers and the activity around them. It was awesome to experience. Well done, Lavuk!

And I have to say again what a privilege it is for me to get to spend time with people with special needs all over the world. Even though some of them smell funny or have drool coming out of their mouth, even though I don’t know how clean their hands are when I get a heartfelt handshake or they spit in my face when they talk, I love them all. They deserve attention and love and respect as much, or perhaps even more, than everyone else. And anyone who commits just a bit of time, attention, and love to an individual with special needs will see their efforts repaid ten-fold with the sincere kindness, joy, humor, and simplicity that a person with special needs gives. 

Looking back, I can’t believe I almost didn’t go to Denmark. I would have missed out on a lot of learning opportunities. As far as the issues with prenatal testing, it seems to me that perhaps well-meaning people in other countries saw one news article about the declining birth rate of kids with Down Syndrome and assumed the worst about the government and the healthcare system. While I do think that Denmark favors a woman’s right to choose, it is certainly not anyone’s goal to eliminate imperfections from society. And I’m so grateful I took the chance to visit Denmark and discover that for myself. 

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