The Best Afternoon Possible

Integration Wien attempts to help young people become independent - despite their handicaps and disabilities

News | Hannah Stadlober | February 2011

René runs around the big white columns in the busy Westbahnhof subway stop. One circle, two circles, three, four. A stream of people rushes past him from the subway, on their way out. Hectic steps reverberate on the stone floor of the station. René stops and patiently waits until all the passers-by ARE past. He smiles and continues his run.

René is 17 years old. He is about 180cm tall, has thick black hair and darting blue eyes. And he is autistic.

Today, he and Wolfi, his "Free Time Assistant", are on the way to the Museum of Technology. It will take them another hour to reach their final destination – there are just too many trees, street lamps, columns and poles for René to run around. But they are not in a hurry.

"The most important thing is that René spends the best afternoon possible," says Wolfi, 23, who is getting a degree in education.

And this is exactly what the Free Time Assistance program of Integration Wien seeks to accomplish. A center for children and young people with mental, physical and multiple handicaps as well as their parents, the Viennese counseling program was set up in 2004 to allow handicapped people from 15 to 30 years old, with the help of assistants, to individually design and spend their afternoons in the ways they like best. The goal of the Free Time Assistance project is to foster the self-determination of young people, whose mobility and independence is often limited due to handicaps.

"It is a great opportunity for young people who cannot spend their free time as independently as others," says Karin Wegscheider, employee at Integration Wien and mother of 20-year old autistic Cornelia, who has been part of the Free Time Assistance program for two years now.

Usually, she and her assistant Franziska go swimming, visit museums, watch movies, have coffee or meet for dinner in a restaurant. And they have become friends.

"Without Franziska, these undertakings would only be possible with me," says Wegscheider. "And what 19-year old wants to hang out with her parents all the time?"

Integration Wien was initially founded in 1986 by a group of parents to improve integration of handicapped children in school. Since then, the organization has been working "for a life without segregation for children, young people or adults with handicaps." Being able to spend your free time independently is part of this ideology.

"Handicapped people are completely excluded from the booming leisure-time industry in Austria," explains Verena Glaser, head of the Free Time Assistance program since April 2010. "In the political discourse, taking part in leisure-time activities is not taken as seriously as other areas. But people with handicaps have the same right to recreation."

Although there are other initiatives from sports clubs and recreational organizations, none of them is self-determined. Integration Wien’s project alone – unlike any other in Vienna – makes this possible. And this is exactly what parents like Karin Wegscheider cherish so much about the program.

"It allows young people to decide for themselves what they want to do and for this, they get an assistant who supports them," she tells The Vienna Review. "Nothing is predetermined– my daughter can choose herself what she wants to do."

Currently, 14 assistants support 20 young handicapped people in their free time endeavors. 62% of the clients are young men, who tend to prefer male assistants and vice versa. Almost half of the clients have a learning disability or a mental retardation, while 26% are autistic.

Usually, the young people meet with their assistants three to four times a month. The assistants, who tend to be education students with experience in social work, usually work with several different clients and are available for up to 36 hours per month, all under Glaser’s discrete eye.

"I keep an eye on the assistants and my clients," Glaser asserts. Monthly team meetings, team building projects, seminars, semiannual evaluations of the assistance program, and phone conversations with parents ensure the quality of the project. Since the program is not about care but about free time companionship, the assistants do not get special training, but are prepared and informed about the special needs of every individual client.

"Every young person is different, you can’t ever make generalizations, everybody has his or her interests, peculiarities and preferences that are completely independent from the handicap," says Glaser.

Reliability, joy in doing and being able to engage with the unknown are in the foreground.  In this mutual learning experience "it is not necessary to be a professional," she adds. "The ideal case would be for the whole society to have experience and skills in dealing with the handicapped.

It is often the lack of this natural way with handicapped people that leaves them yearning for friends. Out of this strong need to be together with peers arises the motivation to use the services offered by the Free Time Assistance program.

"Handicapped people often cannot draw on a big circle of friends. Cornelia does have friends but they tend to be handicapped as well," explains Wegscheider.

Friendships often develop between the young people and their assistants, who network amongst each other to do things together and to get to know each other. And on top of that, the parents burden is lightened as well, while the young people themselves learn to trust someone other than their parents.

Without noticing, the young handicapped people learn a lot.

"I have seen such a positive development in my daughter," Wegscheider agrees. Cornelia has learnt to use public transport, thus increasing her mobility. Showing initiative herself instead of relying on her mother and planning her free-time independently has made her more self-reliant. René tells his mother how much he enjoys his afternoons with Wolfi. They visit museums, stroll around the Christmas markets, go to the zoo or just wander around in the city. They talk about skiing vacations, school, and the Christmas holidays. And about René’s talent for languages.

But what remains most important is not learning but having fun and enjoying oneself, and becoming more independent, responsible and confident as a result.

"I also see great progress in the work of the free time assistants. They have a great know-how and many of them have been part of the program for a very long time already," says Glaser. "In the last year, we were able to double the number of assistants and thus expand the program."

But the program is overwhelmed. "The demand is huge. We have about 20 people on the waiting list now. It is so frustrating always having to put people off because of our exhausted contingent. I can’t even offer them alternatives - because there aren’t any. "

Integration Wien finances its projects through the money it receives from its funding agency Fonds Soziales Wien and their own limited resources generated by membership fees. With only about 200 members and a yearly fee of 40 euros, resources are always scarce, making a much-needed expansion of the project impossible.

"Fonds Soziales Wien provides us with the same amount of money every year but the costs are increasing and thus the services cannot be sustained," says Glaser.

Since 2009 parents have had to contribute 5 euros per hour, as the money from the fund does not cover more than the hourly costs (the assistants receive 10 euros/hr), the office rent and insurance.

Every year, Integration Wien has to re-apply for subsidies, a time consuming process: The new application has to be authorized, which usually leads to delays and cash flow problems, and often creating insurmountable problems for the projects that depend on the subsidies. If the financing of the program could be secured for years, Integration Wien would be able to expand its Free Time Assistance program –which at the moment is not possible.

"It would be unprofessional to offer more spots than we can sustain. We want to provide long-term assistance while avoiding fluctuations," says Glaser.  Although formally limited to 5 years, "we can hardly kick people out of the program" and with the number of clients staying the same, there is little room for maneuver.

"In order to be more independent from the fund, we would need more of own resources – which we don’t have," she adds.

Nonetheless, Glaser remains optimistic. Everybody should be able to use the Free Time Assistance service – regardless of one’s financial situation, type or severity of the handicap.  "This has always been our goal and still is." To achieve this, she has "all kinds of ideas," she says.

"It’s a big playing field – but it always depends on the financing."

For 2011, Integration Wien has already submitted the Free Time Assistance project, which they hope to maintain at current levels. They also hope to receive some money from the annual charity event, Licht ins Dunkel.

"My biggest wish for the future is that I won’t have to reject people who ask for an assistance spot," says Glaser. "And my second wish is that I can advertise for the Free Time Assistance project in good conscience – just because it is such a great thing."

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