Gorleston disability rights campaigner in mission to Romania

Siobhan Meade - Romania visit

Siobhan Meade - Romania visit - Credit: Archant

A Gorleston disability rights campaigner has returned from an overseas visit where she learned blind people are housed in mental institutions when their overly protective family die, to the term 'retarded' being used to describe all disabled people.

Siobhan Meade - Romania visit

Siobhan Meade - Romania visit - Credit: Archant

Siobhan Meade, who is registered blind and has a guide dog, went to Bucharest in Romania to give presentations to leading figures in support of Light Into Europe, a British charity which work for blind and deaf people in the country.

Siobhan said: 'I sat on my 18th floor balcony of my hotel room in Bucharest after a presentation, battling to fight off the tears. They were tears for blind and disabled Romanians who live in a generally decent society – but a society that does not respect them.'

She described after leading a workshop on presentation and grooming how one totally blind 35 year-old woman broke down in emotion as she thanked her for letting her try makeup for the first time. Her family and friends had not allowed her to use any before, she explained because 'blind people can't see, so why would they need makeup.'

Siobhan said: 'The lady is typical of blind people in Romania. She lives with her family and doesn't work.

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'Twenty-four hours earlier, I had sat in a meeting room on the 21st floor with senior level bosses from large and multinational companies and we discussed the barriers that may be contributing to the country's miniscule number of employed blind people and why they, in common with other disabled people were not being offered jobs.

'Part of the problem, according to the hiring managers present was that disabled and blind people are simply not applying for work. This didn't surprise me, having visited a school for the blind just days before. It is clear blind people here are raised with little to no aspirations.

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'I spoke with a 14 year-old who told me his family wouldn't let him work. They've promised to look after him, presumably ignoring the elephant in the room that mum and dad won't be around forever.'

Siobhan, who had taken her guide dog Mac with her on the flight, added: 'But a major barrier to employment is perception of able bodied people. One HR manager explained they would probably not interview a disabled person because they wouldn't want co-workers to feel uncomfortable being around 'this kind of person'.'

However, Siobhan felt there were many positive outcomes from the employment and perceptions workshop as David Adams, president of the European Guide Dog Federation asked business leaders how they want Romania to be viewed by the international community and within the EU. At the end of the session, several companies agreed to welcome disabled people into their offices to help educate their colleagues.

During her visit Siobhan met four of the country's 13 guide dog owners and listened as they recounted stories of shops and restaurants refusing to let them in.

'For my part, I promised to return and do what I can. The reality in Romania however is that there are no legal consequences for discriminating against disabled people and there is no will among the general public to change.

'It is vital therefore that we, members of the international community do all we can to lobby the government to introduce life skills education for disabled people and education for a society of jolly decent people to realise that wrapping 'the disabled' in cotton wool and hiding them away is the worst kind of discrimination.'

To find out more about Light Into Europe, visit the website www.lightintoeurope.org.uk

Siobhan Meade is a regular columnist in the Mercury

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