By Meghan Hussey
Mosaic’s first international engagement was in Latvia, where we began to provide support in 1994. The cobblestone streets of Old Town Riga were not bustling with stores packed with tourists in those days. The Euro was not the currency. The country was only three years beyond gaining independence from the Soviet Union and in the midst of the difficult transition from communism.
The situation was bleak, and nowhere more so than for people with disabilities. People with disabilities did not fit in the communist state model of society, which taught that a person’s value came from their ability to work and contribute to the state. Long-held perceptions that people with disabilities were unable to do so, coupled with social stigma, led to them being removed from society and housed in institutions, out of sight and out of the community. By the time Mosaic started working in Latvia, the majority of people with disabilities were languishing in large institutions, with hundreds of children and adults crammed together in terrible, unsanitary conditions with no rights, no opportunities, and no future.
When Mosaic was invited to Latvia in the mid-‘90s, the first project we launched with our local partner, Fonds Kopa, was called the “community experience program” and involved supporting young adults with disabilities to become part of the community. Mosaic staff also did a lot of training for parents and disability professionals around advocacy, support groups, and models of community-based services and inclusive education for people with disabilities such as those we have in the US.
Fast forward twenty years later and Latvia is part of the European Union, which has opened up a whole new world for them in terms of economic and social development. Kopa is now able to tender for funding for their community-based services from the government and European Social Grants. They operate group homes in the community, which offer a place to live for people with intellectual disabilities or mental health difficulties who need support to live independently. They also have specialized workshops, including sewing and a laundry, which primarily serves a local homeless shelter. Finally, they have a day center for adults with intellectual disabilities to practice life skills, crafts and recreation and go out into the community. They are now able to open up a world of possibilities to those whose lives were written off as worthless before.
Beyond that, some of the organization’s most impressive work has been in the area of advocacy and being a voice for disability rights. Kopa has come together with other organizations to form the Latvian Movement for Independent Living. This gives them a stronger voice for advocating for more community-based services for people with disabilities that allow them to live as independently as possible with the supports they need. They are members of the Riga municipal council’s consultative council on persons with disabilities, and the Ministry of Welfare’s workgroup on de-institutionalization. They have gone as far as to live in and shadow residents at large state institutions to report on conditions and advocate for change.
Kopa is also spreading their advocacy and forging connections across international boundaries. They take advantage of the opportunity to provide an “alternative” report to the European Semester, an EU program that asks for updates from member countries on addressing social concerns. They are members of the European Association of Service Providers in Disability (EASPD). This association has representatives from 17 countries and has worked on developing a standardized qualification, known as the Europe Care Certificate (ECC) for direct support professionals working with persons with disabilities. These EU-wide efforts have the potential to improve services for millions of people with disabilities all over the continent.
There is still a lot to be done in Latvia. The director of Kopa told us that there are still 6,000 Latvians with disabilities in institutions. However, we know that we have helped to build a strong Latvian organization that is up to the challenge. They are building coalitions and taking the lead to make their country and the world more inclusive for persons with disabilities.
This is the legacy that we learn from the experience of Mosaic in Latvia: the power of partnership when working internationally. Today we can see how far the ripple effects can reach when you support local people through knowledge sharing, training, and early funding. Though we are no longer providing direct assistance to our Latvian partners, we know that the work continues and we look forward to keeping the connections alive as we all work towards the goal of a brighter future for persons with disabilities.