Catherine in Spain

Catherine is a senior Distinguished Scholar who is majoring in biology and anthropology, with a Spanish minor, in Dedman College. She received a Richter fellowship for summer 2010 to travel to Madrid and research the integration of people with disabilities into Spanish society.

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So many things, so little time

I don’t even know where to start this post because so many things have happened since the last time I posted. This always happens. Maybe I should have posted more often. Oh, well. Here goes:

Visit to a Day Center:

Last week I visited a combination day center / assisted living facility / special employment center. The living facility and day center are for people with very severe intellectual disabilities and/or behavioral problems. I didn’t know this before I got there, and when I found that out, I have to admit I was a little bit nervous. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into, but I met with the director of the center and she gave me a tour of the facilities. It was a really interesting place.

c037%20.jpg The people who use the center are almost completely dependent on the staff; many lack the communication and motor skills necessary to care of themselves. Everyone was organized into “classrooms” depending on their own special needs, and each room caters to the needs of the specific group – for example, one room had bright colorful lights, music, and textured walls and carpets for sensory stimulation. The building reminded me mostly of an elementary schools with color-coded signs and pictures indicating which room is which, brightly colored walls with crayon self portraits, and puzzles and games to keep everyone busy.

Walking into one of the classrooms with the director, I was greeted by the question “Quien es? Quien es?” (Who are you?) by one of the men inside. I told him that I’m a student from the United States and that … oh, wait … that’s where he stopped me. He was so excited that I was from the US that he started yelling “Americana! Americana! Americana!” followed by “Hamburguesa, hamburguesa!” which means hamburger. It’s funny what people associate with American culture :) The man called his friends over and told them (though I’m sure they’d already heard!) that I am, in fact, American.

They all shared his joy and one by one they all gave me “besos” – kisses on the cheek. Then, in an effort to share their Spanish culture with me, they started shouting “typical” Spanish words: “Tortilla!” “Toro!” “Paella!” It was a really humorous and touching experience, and the director seemed to be excited by the reaction of center’s patrons to my visit.

I also visited the special employment center, a laundry company that does the laundry for the living facility and nearby restaurants and hotels. The people employed here, unlike those living in the day center, are almost completely independent, and having access to their own paycheck from working at the laundromat allows them even more freedom to live their lives as they want.

Sunday trip to the mountains:

c-024%20.jpg Last Sunday I went with the family I’m staying with to their garden in the mountains. This was a nice change of pace from navigating public transport and doing interviews. After seeing all of the veggies that were growing (and trying to figure out what the heck the words are for all of the veggies in Spanish) we went on a hike. Yes, I went on a hike. Through the wilderness, more or less.

I climbed up a waterfall (and back down) without incident and followed my wonderful “tour guides” (ages 11 and 13, family friends that came with us) up and down the slippery hills! It was absolutely beautiful and the sun was shining through the trees to give everything a heavenly glow. Although I am far from an outdoorsy kind of girl, I really enjoyed the chance to see another part of Spain away from the city.

After this excursion, we had obviously worked up an appetite, so we went to a local restaurant for lunch. Guess what I ate? Goat. Add that to the list of interesting things I’ve eaten here. It wasn’t too bad, really, except for the kidney that popped out when I started cutting a piece to eat. After the initial gasp and “Oh my lord, there’s a kidney on my plate” reaction, I handed the kidney off to someone else (though I’m told it’s a delicious treat – no thank you!) and dug in. The meat had an interesting flavor to it that took a little getting used to, but all in all it wasn’t too bad. Does anyone know why we don’t eat goat in the US? I’m curious to know why we don’t.

More interviews:

The other day I talked to someone at Fundacion ONCE, an umbrella organization for several groups that fight for job opportunities for and integration of people with all types of disabilities. The foundation itself hires many people with disabilities to do jobs, from designing websites to manning desks and everything in between. It was an interesting interview, and I received a video and a few books that will be really handy resources for me to use.

My best interview yet was yesterday with a young woman named Claudia who has cerebral palsy. Before I tell you about the interview, a quick and humorous aside about the circumstances under which we met. Claudia invited me to her home to interview her, and when I thought I was in the right place I gave her a call to figure out which house was hers. She said she’d send her dad out to the street to show me the right house – seems normal enough.

So out comes her dad wearing a striped Speedo and a button-up shirt – unbuttoned – with the bottom part tied at the waist a la Brittney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”. After the interview he volunteered to drive me back to the Metro station and so we got into his car (a bright yellow BMW convertible); on the way he told me that he is a singer and banjo player who has toured the world performing but now owns a nightclub in town. Could he be any more fabulous?? I really don’t think so.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Claudia was an absolutely amazing person to interview. Her English was really great, so most of the interview was in English with a few Spanish tidbits thrown in. She’s spent significant time in the US with a cerebral palsy advocacy group and has now started her own web-based organization to provide resources and support for other people in her position.

It was really interesting to hear her compare and contrast cultural differences between the US and Spain with regards to disabilities. For example, she said that Washington, D.C., was like heaven because everything was wheelchair accessible but that she could never live in the US because she wouldn’t be able to afford all of the physical therapy and health care that she needs. The positive thing about Spain is that health care is free and available to everyone who needs it, but the negative is that people lack the “go-get-‘em” attitude of self advocacy that she saw in the US.

Claudia stressed the importance of not treating people with disabilities like children and recognizing that people with disabilities are people, too, above all. She is an incredibly strong-willed, compassionate, and intuitive young woman, and I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with her throughout my research and beyond.

One last hoorah:

Since it’s my last week here, I convinced my friend to take me on a day trip to Toledo, a town that’s about an hour south of Madrid. Sergio, two of his friends, and I went to the beautiful old city to tour museums and churches and take pictures of all of the beautiful sights.

c020%20.jpg Toledo is a really interesting place because it has been influenced at one time or another by Muslims, Christians, and Jews so it has numerous mosques, churches and synagogues all over the city. I’ve already mentioned my penchant for old churches and the cathedral of Toledo definitely didn’t disappoint.

The cathedral started being built in 1227. What?! That’s several hundred years before the United States was even a thought. The inside of the cathedral is nothing less than breathtaking with its Gothic sculptures and immense gold altar. It’s lined with chapels devoted to different saints, and I think I could have spent all day exploring all of the ornately decorated chapels and altars. Unfortunately the guys I was with were not nearly as enthralled by the church as I was, so I didn’t actually get to spend all day there. Instead we headed to a military museum, which proved to be much more intriguing to them.

That day we also stumbled upon an old Turkish bathhouse that was now in ruins, a synagogue-turned-museum about the history of Jews in Spain, and a McDonald’s (hey, we’re all college students and Toledo is a very expensive town!) in the town square where we enjoyed lunch out on the terrace. I love Toledo so much because it’s filled with history, faith, and incredible character. We spent several hours there, but we definitely didn’t see all there was to see.

It’s just about time for me to head back to the States, but I still have a couple of things to fit in before I leave. I can’t believe it’s almost over!

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