Light into Europe Charity works for a world where persons with disabilities have equal opportunities for education and employment; working together with Blind or Deaf children and adults and in collaboration with anyone who shares these ideals, both in Romania and in Europe. Stan Platt, OBE shares the journey of Light into Europe in Romania.
Arriving in Romania after the Revolution, you witnessed the transition of our society to capitalism, democracy and Western values. What are the most important moments that marked your stay here, professionally and personally?
I was involved at the very start of the international efforts to support Romania in its democratic evolution, one of the first British charities to respond to the call of action in late December 1989.
I arrived piloting my own aircraft with a group of Christians from London, with the intent of seeing how we, the British Churches could help improve the livelihood in impoverished areas and in orphanages. We were welcomed by the long forgotten V for Victory signs wherever we went, during that first 10 days we visited Arad, Cluj Napoca, Iasi, Bucharest and Timisoara seeing for ourselves the dreadful orphanages, pitiful hospitals, the people struggling to find sufficient food to feed their families, worn-out roads, queues for fuel, empty shops, restaurants without food to serve even in the city of Bucharest. We eventually found one that was serving one dish, a kind of stew, to this day I am unsure of the type of meat it contained, but then we were hungry!
We had seen enough! We gathered some 20 volunteers from different professional areas who loved challenges and quickly loaded 15 massive trucks with medical equipment, medicines, dry food, toys, clothing and even furniture and drove to Eastern Europe. In the course of this first road journey, we were moved by the situation in hospitals and the living conditions of children in orphanages. We had to do something. And so, on December 29,1989 Light to Romania Charity came into being. Later changed to Light into Europe to reflect the growing need for help in Eastern Europe. The biblical reminder in Matthew 25:40: ”Truly I tell you, whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me” was the major driving force for us and remains the basis for our work to date.
Our first projects were focused on renovations and refurbishments of hospitals, schools and orphanages in small towns and rural areas, from Cluj, Timisoara, to Constanta, Botosani or Craiova.
I remember that period with nostalgia as everyone had great hope for this beautiful country....
In one of these first visits, one of my team was bitten by a street dog, close to the Sala Palatului, no serum in Bucharest, a phone call to Cluj and then the short flight there to save his life with a series of injections. We met several leaders, Petre Roman comes to mind, explained our plans, but things moved on very slowly, so we decided to carry on with our own (limited) resources but massive enthusiasm!
That flight to Cluj Napoca made me ask questions, was there an Air Ambulance service in Romania? Apparently there had been up until 1976, when 2 aircraft engineers stole a BN2 Aircraft from Baneasa and took off into the unfriendly skies with MiG jet fighters being scramble to bring them back. The BN2, a British designed aircraft built under licence at Romaero since the mid-seventies, it was part of the then Aviasan flight of Air Ambulances and had a red cross on each side. The MiGs soon found our runaway boys, but would not shoot them down as it was considered bad form to shoot at anything with a red cross on it, they escaped, landing in a field near Vienna after running out of fuel. That was it, the Ceaușescu government shut the Aviasan service within days. My next question was, is this a service that we can offer to the Romanian Ministry of Health?
By 1993, we started talking formally to the Ministry of Health whilst undertaking medical evacuation flights for surgery unobtainable at the time in Romania, they were a success and before long we were invited to make a provisional flight to Bucharest to visit the Ministry so that they could assess the possibilities we were offering with the hope of re-establishing a nationwide Air Ambulance service for the people of Romania.
Equipping the aircraft to be able to deal with air-evacuation was a major task, we had to have everything available in as lightweight form as possible to cover the diverse medical emergencies we would face. The partnership with the Ministry of Health signed in 1997, provided us with a general-practitioner nurse and a doctor, so we had a huge scope to develop the air-ambulance programme, from training pilots and doctors to provide technical support for the evolving airport’s fire and rescue departments. Over the next 7 years, more than 200 British volunteers travelled to Romania, leading training programmes or continuing the renovation of hospitals, care homes or schools. Our first local volunteer for the air-ambulance service was a very hard working young doctor from Tg. Mures, Dr. Arafat, always open to innovation and challenges. Using 2 Saratoga airplanes, our team managed around 5,000 flights hours and 1,200 flights with no accidents.
Between 1997 and 2003, you were actively involved in hundreds of life-saving missions. How long do you think the emergency aeromedical system has evolved in the last two decades?
Air-medical services are an important component of healthcare systems. We at Light into Europe were delighted to hand our Air Ambulance work over to them as part of the Ministry of the Intern, they had the opportunity to poor millions of Euro into the project, whereas we had to consider carefully every cost we had. Access to critical care and specialty services for many people in Romania has dramatically improved with the availability of SMURD helicopters and airplanes. The transport of acutely injured and ill patients by air is an integral part of regionalized systems of healthcare. The use of SMURD air-medical services within trauma systems in Romania is well established and internationally recognized for its well-trained crews and either fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters to rapidly manage and transport seriously ill patients from remote locations.
Romania has a history of high rates of road accidents, as well as in the number of patients with cardiovascular emergencies, two of the most demanding areas in public health where SMURD services have shown tangible benefits in terms of survival, time interval to reach the healthcare facility, time interval to definite treatment, better results, or a benefit in general.
Subsequently, the Light into Europe foundation opened a new chapter, this time dedicated to assisting the blind and deaf in Romania. What led you to take this step and what would be the key figures in almost two decades of commitment in this field?
By the time we handed over the air-ambulance service to SMURD, it was clear for us that people with disabilities, especially children and young people are in need of help as public services were lacking resources. Two of my grown-up children are Deaf, but disability has not limited them to reach their dreams, one is a University lecturer, teaching British sign language and the other works in banking, they have been my inspiration and motivation to change the way Romanian people consider people with disabilities.
In the last two decades, the introduction of European legislation meant Romanian people with disabilities have growing opportunities, visibility and aspirations than ever before. But despite this progress, negative public attitudes and awkwardness about disability prevail.
- Two thirds (78%) of the Romanian public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people.
- 57% of people tend to think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else.
- Three quarters (77%) of our beneficiaries, especially Blind people have experienced attitudes or behaviours where other people expected less of them because of their disability.
- More than 70% of children and young people admit that they have actually avoided talking to a disabled person/child because they weren’t sure how to communicate with them.
Disabled people and their families tell us that negative attitudes affect every area of their lives – in the playground, at work, in shops, on the street.
What do these statistics show us? People with disabilities are excluded from the mainstream of society and experience difficulty in accessing their fundamental rights. There is, furthermore, a strong relationship between disability and poverty. Poverty makes people more vulnerable to disability and disability reinforces and deepens poverty. Disability in Romania continues to be couched within a medical and welfare framework, identifying people with disabilities as ill, different from their non-disabled peers, and in need of care. Because the emphasis is on the medical needs of people with disabilities, there is a corresponding neglect of their wider social needs. This has resulted in severe isolation for people with disabilities and their families.
Children with disabilities are 10 times less likely to attend school than children without disabilities. Even if children with disabilities do attend school, they are more likely to drop out early, and their level of schooling is below that of their peers. Classrooms and school facilities are often not accessible, and teachers are not adequately trained on the needs of children with disabilities. Children with disabilities are also often excluded from social, economic participation and are overlooked in the planning and provision of services. Consequently, children with disabilities remain largely invisible in communities in Romania and invisible to decision- and policy- makers and service providers.
Back in 2003, nobody wanted to talk about Romanian sign language, Deaf children were institutionalised in special schools without access to their natural language. Since then, our focus was on developing ground-breaking services that enable Blind or Deaf children and young people to lead more independent and fulfilling lives and increase the inclusion of people with disabilities in education and employment. We were so happy in February 2020 when the Romanian Parliament eventually recognised the Romanian sign language as the natural language of the Romanian Deaf community.
Thanks to the support of our visionary donors and sponsors, essential services such as accessible textbooks for sight impaired pupils, Orientation and Mobility for Blind people and guide dogs and assistance dogs were our stepping stones.
How can we improve attitudes to disabled people in Romania?
Much of the discomfort people feel about disability may stem from a lack of understanding. Not enough people know a disabled person – more than 40% of the Romanians say they do not know anyone who is disabled – and many are concerned that they will do or say the wrong thing when talking to disabled people or about disability. Our research shows that the general public, public institutions, employers and disabled people believe that more everyday interactions and greater public education about disability will increase understanding and acceptance of disabled people. We all have a role to play and Light into Europe is playing its part. In 2018, we launched the Disability Awareness training programme for companies and schools to get us all thinking about what we can do to include disabled people more in our lives. Major companies such as Megaimage or Microsoft engaged their employees in our programme and benefitted from direct experiences and technical knowledge on accessibility, inclusion policies and recruitment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed countless challenges, with a global impact unprecedented in recent history. How did you overcome these obstacles and how did the foundation’s activity adapt to the new socio-economic reality?
Let me share with you a recent discussion with one of our young people. ”At this moment”, says Maria on the telephone, ”I can’t go outside on my own because I can’t maintain distance from other people”. Maria is an enthusiastic Light into Europe volunteer with a visual impairment. ”I now feel even more dependent on people around me”, she adds. ”I can’t use my most important sense, that of touch, as I usually do.” Her words echo those of Darius, one of the guide dogs’ potential beneficiary. Darius lives in the Moldavian countryside. ”Being blind makes me dependent on others, for instance in preparing food or going out”, he said. ”Everyone is talking about keeping distance, but how on earth can I do that?”.
In the meantime, the Deaf cannot lipread through a mask, just imagine for a moment the difficulties for them. They have had so many problems, especially in Romania!
This corona experience is fresh in everyone’s minds. Yes, the past 12 months or so have been difficult for us all, but we are incredibly proud of the way our dedicated team of volunteers, donors and staff have come together to support one another in so many ways at such a vital time. Moving online some of our activities, such as the Book club for Blind children, creating digital resources in Romanian sign language, organizing webinars for our guide dogs users and donating much-needed tablets, smart phones and laptops, all these were possible thanks to companies such as Total Romania, Teaha Consulting, Petrom, Initiative Media, Turkish Airlines, Bausch Medical, Catena, Deloitte, Veranda, Raiffeisen Bank, Business Lease, Megaimage, International British School of Bucharest, Hochland, BlueAir, Borsec, Domeniile Blaga, Ford Romania, DHL, British Embassy and more plus lots of volunteers. We are deeply grateful to each one of them.
It is not clear what the effect of the pandemic will be on the people we work with in various regions of Romania or for our donors and supporters. What we do know is that the focus on creating an inclusive society is more important than ever. In crisis situations, people with disabilities fall between the cracks, as the statements by Maria and Darius demonstrate. Simply because they are forgotten, or that help for them is regarded as expensive and complex, or due to stigma and discrimination.
I personally believe that this period will also bind people together, including those with disabilities! I hope and pray that corona won’t lead to exclusion but to solidarity. In any event, that’s what we at Light into Europe intend to work for.
The activity of the charity Light into Europe is certainly a source of inspiration and an example to follow in Romanian society. Please send a message from Light into Europe to the readers of TheBizz Magazine, a publication at the beginning of the road, dedicated to the English-speaking business community in Romania.
Light into Europe has more than 30 years of history and continues its mission of serving in vulnerable communities, such as the Deaf and the Blind and can help to meet these challenges and ensure these people have the support they need to live connected, rewarding and independent lives – but we can only make a difference together, with your support!
I’m grateful for the chance to thank you – our amazing supporters, donors and volunteers – for everything you do that makes our mission possible. With your support, Light into Europe will continue to transform the lives of thousands of Romanian people living with sight or hearing loss and ensure they can live, learn and work as independently as they choose.