Twenty-two Romanian children: The world view of those with mental and physical disabilities

By Mouna Attarha '09

During the 2007 winter break, I volunteered for a non-profit foundation called Motivation Romania. Their mission is to enhance the lives of severely disabled children by teaching them how to live independently. It is a phenomenal program where the well-being of the child is the ultimate concern.

Motivation owns three foster homes, each housing children of similar age and disability. The Cornetu home, where I lived, has eight children: one little boy with hydroencephaly (also known as "water in the head"), two older children with behavioral issues, and six kids diagnosed with severe autism. I worked directly with the children using multiple techniques and media to gain a greater understanding of their emotional responses.

I was drawn to this program because I wanted to know how children with severe mental and physical disabilities perceive their world. How do they interpret abstract emotions like anger and happiness? What are they afraid of? And can differences between able-bodied children and children with disabilities be due to cultural uniqueness? I traveled thousands of miles away to a little village called Bragadiru to perhaps stumble upon an answer. When reaching my guest room at 12 a.m., I realized that sleep would be hopeless; I was too excited to meet the children I would be living with for the next month.

At 7 a.m., I heard sounds of deafening decibels. I met Georgiana first. Her story differs from the rest of the children. She was born normal but at the age of 4, her parents left her unattended in a room where the bed served as her stool to an open window. Georgiana's curiosity gave her courage to go on the ledge, where she fell from the windown of her three-story apartment building. Her parents abandoned her after the fall.

Although she survived, Georgie is confined to a wheelchair and has suffered a tremendous amount of permanent brain damage to her frontal lobe. All I wanted was some device to tell me what she and the others were thinking. But since none exist, I decided to have the children draw pictures to several simple prompts: draw happiness, draw anger, draw fear, and draw the world. This study is still in progress because I now plan to compare the results with American disabled and able-bodied children in order to study how culture and setting affect these children's perceptions.

Contrary to what I thought before I arrived, these children have personalities. They were perfectly aware of what was going on in their environment, at least, far more aware than I thought they would be. For example, Aurel would notice when you pulled the lever on his wheelchair. With great difficulty, he would lean forward and use his index finger to lift the lever up in order to turn the wheels. Nargita would pretend to bite her wrist in order to get what she wanted.

Once I understood their personalities and what areas needed improvement, I employed motor skills training, speech therapy, sign language, physical therapy, and behavioral therapy techniques to investigate and advance their cognitive functioning. Positive reinforcement, in the form of praise, motivated them most when it came to learning new tasks. I will never forget when Patrick jumped with excitement when he completed his first puzzle or when Betty learned to feed herself for the first time. Costel signed "miss you mommy," the day I left.