Sølund inspires the world

What can China learn from the way Denmark treats disabled people? This question led a small Chinese delegation to Denmark invited by the Christian organization Areopagos that works with e.g. religion dialogue in Denmark, Norway and China. The Chinese visitors went to several places in Denmark.

The delegation consisted of seven people who all work with the conditions of disabled people in the metropolis of Nanjing. In December 2014 four of the participants visited the village of Sølund.

By Majbritt Sørensen and Malina Müller

The Chinese visitors: Impressed by Sølund

”We can learn from the way you run Sølund and the way you treat the residents. Working with disabled people is still new to us, and the staff working within the area is not all that well educated. Your experiences can be a real eye opener to them,” says Robert Ma, who is the project leader at YMCA&W in Nanjing and functioned as an interpreter during the trip to Denmark.

During the visit the Chinese visitors received an introduction to the village of Sølund from director Lone Bahnsen Rodt and deputy director Trine Schierff. In addition, they took a tour of living unit 10, Søbo, where they met a few of the residents. The day ended with a visit to the Snoezel house, The Golden Horn.

”The visit to Sølund was fantastic. It is a shame that the Chinese government representatives were not able to take part. The work you do based on the philosophy of Gentle Teaching was no doubt what impressed us the most. Your activities with the residents were also interesting, and we will discuss the possibilities of implementing them into our centers,” says Robert Ma.

YMCW runs the day center Home of Grace which cooperates with Areopagos. Presently twenty people take part in the day center. At the end of the day they return to their homes, where most of them live with their parents. Home of Grace employs five teachers and a volunteer from Hong Kong. In addition, a group of twenty teachers from other centers are associated with the project. The day center arranges training programs for teachers and is presently in touch with approximately 110 teachers. According to Robert Ma there is a great need for further education:

”Disabled people in China are often subject to discrimination and misunderstandings. Because of their handicap they are deprived of basic human rights such as their right to vote and their right to make independent decisions. They are not treated as citizens but as freaks.”

However, Robert Ma is optimistic about the future:
”China has a very strong government system, and I believe that when the government pays increasing attention to the services for people with disabilities we may make great achievements.”

Inspiration and awareness

Besides the visitors from China, Randi Louise Rasmussen, educational psychologist, with extensive experience in Norwegian special education also took part in the visit to the village of Sølund. She works with Areopagos about the project in Nanjing. Randi Louise Rasmussen visits Nanjing a couple of times a year to educate caretakers and teachers. The education is typically based on observations of the staff’s interaction with the disabled people. The observations serve as a base for dialogue and become a process of learning. She was impressed after the visit to Sølund.

”It interested Li Enlin, who is the general secretary at YWCA, and me to hear about the work done at Sølund to change the way the residents are treated. Sølund is so far ahead in that area compared to China. The Chinese expressed that they learned a lot from the visit, but they were also aware that they were far from the level they observed at Sølund.”

She explains:
”Some of the staff in the centers thinks that disabled people can be cured. They call their project a rehabilitation program. Some think that if you just teach, teach and teach, you will be able to lift the disabled people to a so-called “normal level”.”

Possible pitfalls ahead

Randi Louise Rasmussen believes that it is necessary to be aware of the pitfalls that can occur when introducing people to an approach and a way of working which is so far from their own reality. By doing so, serious gaps can be created between the ambitions and reality and the danger is that people lose their motivation.

Trine Schierff, deputy director in the village of Sølund understands the notion.
”When you are from a country in which not a lot of resources are spend in our field of work, there is an obvious danger that some will think, that this will never be within our reach. But my experience tells me that a lot of people are good at being inspired by little things. They will find a niche in what we present to them and notice that here is something to take home and use instantly. One group for example was very interested in Gentle Teaching. Gentle Teaching will cost you energy and commitment, but otherwise it will not cost you anything. It is about attitude, your view on humanity and the way you approach people. It is a question of, for example, moving away from reward and punishment to another way of working.”

A matter of resources

Randi Louise Rasmussen questions whether the Western world’s consumption of resources is sustainable:

”Are we so spoiled that we are not able to see how things could be done with a lot less resources and still be a good project? That was a question that occurred to me again and again when visiting the Danish projects. When I travel to underdeveloped countries and see the fantastic work being done there, it is important for me to ask that question and try to avoid imposing my standards on them. Do we expect too much when working with other countries? I think that we must be humble every now and then and ask each other if we ask too much of ourselves as well. We have high ideals and spend enormous amounts of money. Can things be done, perhaps, for less?”

Trine Schierff agrees that sometimes less can be more. Not everything hinges on whether the staff puts on the correct sheets or uses an iPad for communication.
”Everything is dictated by local possibilities and is a question of where you choose to focus. To some countries, I am sure there are a thousand things more important than whether you have a sheet on your bed. And of course you can make good communication without iPads,” says Trine Schierff and continues:

”But here, we have the resources and the possibilities, and then we must use them. I have worked at Sølund for 25 years and the biggest challenge we have to this day is communication. It takes a lot to communicate with residents as weak in their communication as they are and all means must be tested.”

The long haul is necessary

With Trine Schierff’s 25 years of experience in mind, it is important for her to stress the long term views when telling visitors about the work done at Sølund. Outsiders may see the icing on the cake when it comes to the work done with Gentle Teaching, but she emphasizes:

”Nothing takes care of itself. It has taken 20 years to implement Gentle Teaching. It is not a method you can learn in two days. It is a philosophy and a view on humanity and this means that you constantly have to be on the lookout for new methods that can match this view. We are never done, and we are in a process that lives and breathes. And we will go on and on educating, reflecting and creating dialogue around that.”

Tine Schierff does not hesitate when asked what she finds to be the most important thing for Sølund to show the world:
”It is our positions regarding our view on human nature, the manner in which we treat disabled people and the development in the area during the last 50 years. To me it is the only way to treat people who are vulnerable and left to the mercy of others to a great extent. It is not so much a fine Snoezel house or the beautiful surroundings. It’s the tone, the spirit, it is the way the employees are with the residents.”

Home of Grace

Parents in Nanjing were in need of a meeting place for their disabled children. The parents got together and met in the premises of the Nanjing YWCA. In the spring of 2011 the authorities in Nanjing decided to help people with mental illnesses or disabilities. The same year Home of Grace was opened. The Nanjing YWCA invited Areopagos to join as a collaborative partner, and receives funding through Norad for a period of five years ending in 2016.