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Monnikenheide social model embraces disability

16 April 2013

Mrs Demeester (left), with Assoc Prof Wong, answering questions from the audience

Each person has his or her own value and the right to live a "normal" and happy life. "Therefore we need to create a world in which persons with a disability can go to school, can go to work, can have a family life, can have a leisure time, and can feel good. We call it integration and normalisation." Thus is the belief of Mrs Wivina Demeester, the former State Secretary for Public Health and Handicapped Care and Minister of Budget and Science in Belgium, who was at NUS on 9 April to give a talk about Monnikenheide - a home to more than 100 individuals with various disabilities.

At the seminar organised by the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences' Social Science and Policy Research Cluster and the Reading Group on the Politics of Enablement, Mrs Demeester shared her journey of setting up and running a world-class facility for persons with disabilities. As a parent to a boy with Down Syndrome, she personally faced the tough challenges of bringing up a disabled child, an experience that spurred her to start up Monnikenheide.

Mrs Demeester discussed the importance of physical and social activities, decision-making autonomy, emotional well-being and self-esteem. She presented the different levels of care and support for individuals with disabilities, and also for their families such that the disabled are empowered to integrate into society. She also showed images of Monnikenheide in picturesque Zoersel, 75 km from Brussels. She opined: "When people live in beautiful surroundings, they become beautiful too."

The audience comprising academicians, practitioners, policy makers and parents of the disabled participated actively at the seminar moderated by Associate Professor Reuben Wong from the NUS Department of Political Science. One asked if there was a defining moment when societal mindsets towards the mentally handicapped community began to change. Mrs Demeester said this was a continuous process and recalled how she and other volunteers sought to effect the mind shift by embarking on a campaign with the slogan "There are no handicapped people in Belgium, only handicapped people in your street." Not only did they get society to recognise and accept the presence of these individuals, but more importantly, to give them respect and resources.

Guest-of-Honour Ms Denise Phua, a Member of Parliament who is also the President of Singapore's Autism Resource Centre, raised the question of how one should prioritise available resources - such as education, health and rehabilitation - since the needs are so great. Ms Demeester replied that there is no way of "prioritising" as all aspects are equally important in the process of integrating persons with disabilities into the community.

Dr Balbir Singh, the founder of Down Syndrome Association (Singapore) asked about Monnikenheide's operations as a social enterprise. Mrs Demeester explained that the home tries to find jobs for residents in sheltered workshops as much as possible, but some individuals may not be suitable for employment. In the end, it is about giving all individuals a sense of independence, a sense of self-actualisation and empowerment, she emphasised.

The seminar concluded with an insightful video of Mrs Demeester's labour of love.

By Tiah Kiang Choon, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences