Drahoslava (Daja) Kabatova is creating hope and self-sufficiency for the disabled in the Czech republic by training them in the production and instruction of traditional craft, and helping them form communities of mutual support.
The New Idea
Faced with institutional care that does nothing to prepare the disabled for life "on the outside," Daja is creating opportunities and counseling for the post-institutional disabled. Starting with a center that she designed near the town of Kladno and craft skills that she learned through intensive sessions at trade and industrial schools, Daja is teaching the disabled skills that allow them to succeed in the Czech economy. Daja not only teaches the disabled traditional crafts, but organizes and publicizes a school for such crafts in which the teachers are her disabled clients, and helps her clients market their goods successfully. Daja also provides a range of services–from transportation to emergency accommodation to counseling and hotlines–each of which allows the disabled to gradually take ownership of their own lives. Many of the costs of these services are creatively cross-subsidized by the courses offered to the general public and by the sale of a portion of the goods created in the center.
Daja is on the verge of releasing herself from the day-to-day management of the center and throwing herself into its replication across the Czech republic.
The healthcare services available to the physically handicapped in the Czech Republic are generally deficient, as are the services that would help them become self-sufficient. Most often, young adults leave care institutions (such as schools or rehab. centers) without the means to live on their own. They return to their families (who do not know what to do with them) and become pensioners forced to live isolated, inactive lives. Those without the support of family are moved en masse into block housing units without care facilities. These units are notorious in the Czech republic, and many have degenerated into near-slums in which drug and alcohol abuse become solutions to the problems of helplessness and ill-adjustment. What's more, transportation for the disabled is very poor, and there exist few support and counseling communities among the disabled.
Over the past few years, these problems have begun to attract the attention of social reformers and NGOs, but there are still very few successful programs to assist the disabled in their integration into society. The emphasis remains on rehabilitative care, and the very practical challenge of finding accommodations and jobs are ignored. And such neglect only fuels the larger problem of prejudice: the disabled are still widely viewed as necessarily passive, as having nothing to contribute.
In 1992, Daja founded the Svaty Jan pod Skalou Association with the initial objective of simply locating a site on which to create a care center for the disabled. It wasn't until 1994 that she finally found a suitable site–a former prison near Kladno–on which to found her remarkable center. Her vision was to pioneer an alternative form of care that focused on the therapeutic qualities of work and craft. The site cost nine million crowns to create, and she raised much of the money as a donation from the Development of Public Society Foundation. She called suppliers all over the country and secured donations of 50 percent of the materials she would need to build the center. She also convinced a trucking company to deliver the materials for free. The center features a number of her own unique designs, including doors and windows that can be opened by virtually all disabled clients and tables that accommodate all varieties of wheelchairs. In 1996, following another grant from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Daja's center first offered its services to some 15 clients.
The center works with its clients to teach them a traditional craft, produce products to sell on the market, and offer courses in these crafts to the disabled and the non-disabled alike. Many traditional crafts like traditional weaving, basket making, pottery, and dry flower arrangements have all but disappeared from the Czech mainstream. Daja has discovered that a strong market still exists for these products, and she (and a team of craftsmen she employs selectively) trains her clients in one or more of the crafts. When the products are sold, they are never labeled as "special" or as having been produced by the disabled: they sell on their own merits. Some of the work appears and is sold through the museum of industrial art.
She offers her services free of charge to the disabled, and cross-subsidizes them by offering the same training courses to the public at large. She advertises regularly, and has attracted paying clients from all over the Czech Republic. Her first class of disabled clients are leading these public courses. With these courses, she has engineered a remarkable reversal: the disabled are teaching the public a form of skilled work and in doing so not only gaining self-respect but also changing the prevailing views of the disabled in society at large. The demand for her courses have increased steadily since her program's inception.
Her center also provides other forms of services to help the disabled achieve self-sufficiency, and she is planning to expand the range of services dramatically. First, she offers transportation to and from her center (transportation is often unavailable for the disabled, which literally prevents them from leaving the home). She has also started the first hotline and counseling service for the disabled who are trying to adjust to life outside institutions. She has put together a network of doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, and disability experts to provide medical and lifestyle counseling to the disabled, and is creating a disabled-to-disabled mentoring service for those in need.
Her next important project is an accommodations service for the disabled in crisis. Not only do the disabled have trouble in transition from institutionalization, but they succumb more frequently to medical emergencies which drain the family resources. During such emergencies, Daja will offer short-term housing that is fully equipped for the disabled. Again, she plans to cross-subsidize this housing with paid clients: she has also observed that there are no vacation spots that are equipped for the disabled, and that there is a market for vacation lodging among the disabled. Vacationers will pay for the facilities, allowing families in crisis to stay for free.
During the program's pilot years, Daja has been involved in all elements of the work. She has taught herself all of the traditional crafts by attending intensive sessions in trade and industrial schools, and has conducted much of the initial training herself. She has also been deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the center. But she is ready for a change: in the next year, she sees herself turning her energy to the replication of her project elsewhere in the Czech republic. She has had visitors from all over the country (and the region) who have shown great interest in her program, and have asked her to oversee the development of similar projects elsewhere.
She has already shown great concern for the spread of her methodology. She has begun a series of seminars with local "diakonies"–Church-affiliated shelters–throughout the Czech Republic that badly need an infusion of creativity. She is also holding workshops for civil servants affiliated with municipal committees, and thereby introducing her methods to state-run care facilities. Finally, she has developed an internship program for students from the social work and pedagogy faculties at Charles University. Students are placed in her center and learn her methods through practice.
Even without her direct involvement, the Ministry of Health and Education has incorporated elements of her project into their own rehabilitation program, and have begun to evolve their own "work and craft therapy" programs.
Daja's first motivation will always be her daughter, who was born severely disabled and has recently died of causes related to her disability. For many years, Daja worked with a state-funded institution for disabled children, where she began to reform the system from within. She was extremely dissatisfied with the closed, stale institutional environment that refused to focus on the lives that the disabled could lead outside of institutional confines.
As soon as she was able (and with only 1500 crowns in her pocket), she gathered a group of friends and got started on her own project at Letohradek Vendula. She studied pedagogy at Charles University and trained herself in traditional crafts, which she came to see as a source of deliverance for the disabled. Thanks to her resourceful quest for donated materials and time, and her cross-subsidizing of services, she has now created a fully autonomous oasis of creativity and opportunity unlike any other in the region.