When I lived in Institution, I did not need to know how to read. Now I live in my own house, so I have to learn it, says Andja
Try to imagine that instead of familiar letters making meaningful words you just see a bunch of useless lines. That is how 46-year-old Andja Postolović feels every time she sees any written sign around her.
Andja is a client of Residential Institution Gvozden Jovančićević in Veliki Popovac, a small village in Serbia, which takes care of people with intellectual disabilities. She came there three years ago, and until just two months ago, Andja was able to write only four letters of her name. Before, she lived in Grocka, suburban neighbourhood of the City of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, where she stayed with her husband and family taking care of her household and kids.
“My husband was drinking a lot. I have one son and three daughters. When I was still in hospital after the birth of my youngest daughter, people from Center for social welfare took her away from me and brought me to the Institution in Veliki Popovac. The only thing I had left from my daughter was her baby shirt. I did not want to go there and I cried so much”, says Andja, wiping her tearful eyes with her hand.
Andja could not do much about it as she was deprived of legal capacity, like most people who live in institutions of social protection. From a legal point of view, a person deprived of legal capacity has the same rights and obligations as a 14-year-old child, and instead of himself, decisions are made by a guardian.
Some time passed and Andja was getting used to a new environment. She found a few friends among other clients and became responsible for cleaning offices and halls in the institution. “It was hard in the beginning, but I got used to it and soon it was nice for me to stay there. I met Sladjan in there. We became a couple and I liked spending time with him. Every day we were drinking coffee and talking together. And I was so happy when I found out about our moving to Veliko Gradište”, says Andja.
“Getting a life” in Veliko Gradište
Andja was one of 20 clients of Residential Institution in Veliki Popovac who got involved in a project called “Getting a life”, which is related to deinstitutionalization and social inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Institution Veliki Popovac decided to enter the EU funded project, together with Czech non-governmental organization People in Need, and in March 2015 Andja, Sladjan and four more clients moved 60 kilometers away to live in a small town Veliko Gradište.
With professional support of assistants, local government and all good people in a town near Silver Lake, the clients are now much more independent in making decisions and organizing their own lives. “When I lived in Institution, I did not need to know how to read as there were workers who could do that for me. But now, when I live in my house, I have to learn it. I have to do everything on my own, and I like it better that way,” says Andja.
UNESCO emphasizes literacy as “a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world”.
But reality is not very bright in Serbia. Yet 17 percent of the population is illiterate, according to figures reported in 2014 by the Ministry of Education, of which more than 80 percent are women. The situation is getting worse especially among people in residential institutions since they usually do not have many opportunities to practise their writing and reading skills, as other people daily do.
Literacy is the way to a deeper socialization
Soon after the clients move out into a community, it becomes obvious that literacy is one of the most important precondition for their deeper socialization and general quality of life. That is why there was a literacy training organized as one of the project’s activity, which Živoslavka Lola Ilić, a retired school teacher, soon decided to join.
“Andja was at first able to recognize only the letters A and B. She could barely write her first name and decisively refused to learn other letters. She kept saying she was not a child to go to school. We managed to convince her to at least try it. She started to learn more and more and gradually became confident,” says Živoslavka Lola Ilić. “Andja is now able to write simple short words in her very neat handwriting. There is still a lot of work and learning ahead of us to be able to say that Andja is really literate, but she is getting better and better every day,” says Živoslavka Lola Ilić.
Andja had finished her four grades, but later managed to forget letters. “When Lola came, I did not want to learn to write and read because I was scared and I thought that not knowing anything, the teacher would yell at me. But then, I realized my teacher is very nice and she kept going slowly with me, so it was not that hard. Now I can help Sladjan when he does not know how to write something,” explains smiling Andja.
I want to write a letter to my children
Several months ago, Andja began working for the Directorate for Constructions of Veliko Gradište Municipality, doing cleaning and greening jobs in the city park. She brooms park paths, collects waste, waters the plants. “You cannot take your salary unless you can sign. If you want to get a new ID card, you need to sign. And it is always good to know what is written on your paper,” she answers on why literacy is important for her.
When she comes home from work, she watches her favorite TV show, drinks coffee with her boyfriend or goes for a walk along the Danube. “Veliko Gradište is the best town in the world. I started to help with cleaning in the library. Everyone is very nice to me, and you know, every time I go there, a cup of coffee is waiting there for me. They accepted me very well. It is a shame to go to a library and not to be able to read and write,” says Andja.
"Getting a life" is a part of a larger project "Open Arms", which is supported by the Ministry of Labor, Veteran and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Serbia, and financed by the European Union. Within the project, besides the house in Veliko Gradište, six other clients have moved to another small town Petrovac na Mlavi and other eight have been living now in a so-called Halfway house, which provides training for clients having moved out from an institution to live in a community.
Andja is planning to visit some of her friends who live now in Petrovac na Mlavi and wants to go there on her own. That is why she needs to practice her reading skills a little bit more. “I want to learn how to read because it is important when you want to go somewhere by bus – you have to read its sign onto the bus saying where it is going,” explains Andja.
“Writing is important for me because I want to write a letter to my children. I want them to visit me some day if their foster parents let them to Veliko Gradište. I will take them to the playground and read them fairytales. That is why literacy is so important,” she concludes.