Updated: Jan 9
When we first moved to Switzerland, I was hyper aware of the similarities and differences between my passport country and our new home. Children no more than five years old were walking to school on their own and groups of teenage boys would stop their gruff adolescent conversations to say hello to passersby on the street. In the United States, one would never see an untethered five year old nor would most anyone pass a group of teens without feeling some level of fear. The five year olds walking alone seem to be the beginning of the independence funnel and the result is the teen with manners, respect and responsibility. The level of independence expected of young people in Switzerland is staggering. This independence is the backbone of how all people are treated and expected to behave in this country.
We live a leisurely 5 minute (or furiously paced 3 minute walk) to the bus stop in our village just north of the airport in Zürich, Switzerland. On the way to the bus stop, I pass a large apartment building complex which is covered in a grid of cylindrical bars. In the summer months, these bars are a beautiful tangle of purple wisteria flowing in and out, meters into the air. But in the winter months, it is a dark dingy building covered in cold bars. Our family has taken to lovingly calling it, The Jungle. On the way to the bus stop, I often encounter groups of adults with disabilities both coming from and going to the bus stop, on their way to work, or just hanging out. Being a special education teacher for the last twenty years, my interest was piqued instantly. I started giving myself more time to get to the bus so I could slowly walk by the building from where these individuals poured out on a regular basis.
One day, as I slowly meandered to the bus stop, I met a middle aged man with cerebral palsy sitting on a rock wall enjoying a cigarette. We made eye contact and he returned my greeting. As I walked by, I heard him greet everyone that passed. Not two minutes later, as I approached the bus stop, I overheard a group of adults with disabilities discussing their vacation plans. It quickly became clear to me that even though I have been an advocate for individuals with disabilities for over 20 years, this was the first time I had seen my ideal notion of how a society should integrate those with disabilities.
My first experience with living and working abroad was in Paris in 2000. Before living in Paris, I had no idea about the perception of disabilities nor the level of service provided for individuals with disabilities in France. I learned very quickly that public schools were not the place for a child with a disability. I worked with numerous expat families that were told that the public schools could not serve their child.
One family in particular had a nine year old boy with ADHD. "Joey" struggled to pay attention long enough to learn in the traditional method. He was kicked out of school within his first week of attending and his parents were desperate to find someone to teach and coordinate his home school program. They left the US to relocate to Paris with the innocent belief that all public schools are required to take children with learning difficulties. Unfortunately, their misconceptions were quickly changed with the harsh reality that they were on their own. Through the contacts at The American Church, a hub for all things Anglophone, they were able to find me, a speech therapist and individuals to teach specific subjects. During this period of time, the parents also embarked on the difficult task of trying to get the Parisian school system and their insurance company to pay for Joey’s services. I observed a mother broken down while fighting a fight for which she was clearly not prepared. As many expats have experienced, Joey’s father had signed a two year contract that he was not able to break. Joey and his family were stuck in a difficult situation. Everyone involved was doing the best they could, but Joey’s education and socialization were suffering.
The second family I worked with had a son with severe autism. "Tom" could only repeat others speech, had severe outbursts and didn’t sleep much. He had both a daytime and night time nanny so the rest of the family could sleep and therefore function in their daily lives. Tom received all educational services in the home from privately funded experts. I came into Tom’s life a year after his family moved to Paris from the UK. The first day I worked with Tom, in a fit of frustration, he broke an enormous window in the playroom by slamming the back of his head against the glass. I would also be the recipient of a tetanus shot after he bit through my clothing, deep into my skin. Tom was a very intelligent young boy that was frustrated with his lack of communication skills.
Upon their arrival in Paris, Tom’s parents were told that their best option was to send him away to a boarding school for children with disabilities in the countryside and that it would probably be better for their whole family. Understandably, all trust in the system was lost and the family completely withdrew both Tom and his older brother from the school system. In an effort to make all educational arrangements on their own, Tom’s father quit working in order to become the boys educational coordinator. This was a job he was not qualified to do nor one he was especially happy to do, but that was where life had led them.
Observing the difficulties of these families has stayed with me for 18 years now. So when we decided it was time to move overseas again, all I could picture was my experience in France. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The bar-clad building around the corner is a group living home for adults with disabilities. These individuals are learning daily life skills, holding part-time jobs, and have lively social lives. There are two foundations in our small town which employ the lion’s share of the individuals that live in The Jungle and many from neighboring villages. The residents of these group homes are not followed around by a supervisor at all times. I’m sure there is training involved in all skills before independence is achieved, but I observe very independent individuals traveling to their desired destination.
At this point in my stay in Switzerland, I understand the importance placed on independence. Independence from the age of five! After six years in our small village north of Zürich, I’m very happy to be living in an inclusive community which values expects independence from all citizens.
April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com