This profile is dedicated to the memory of Milan Chab. It was prepared when Milan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996. Milan Cháb has a dramatic plan for integrating disabled and mentally impaired people into Czech society, which previously isolated and institutionalized them, and making them a vital component of restructuring and developing abandoned villages and farms.
The New Idea
In the Czech Republic, disabled and mentally impaired children are typically removed from their families and placed in large government institutions. This approach has led to widespread misconception about the abilities of these special people. Milan Cháb is spearheading the movement in his country to disband large institutions and to replace them with small community-based organizations and programs that provide the special services and training the children require. For example, he has developed special classes and mainstream education possibilities that have secured the backing of local education authorities in the western Czech Republic where his project began.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Milan's work is the link he forges between services for the children and general community development in the Czech Republic. Working within the parameters of their abilities, his organization is training the children in agriculture and other rural redevelopment skills that enable them to contribute to much-needed rehabilitation of many abandoned villages and farms. Thus the children learn valuable skills and have the opportunity to interact with other people in ways that demonstrate their capacity to contribute to their society. His work is being watched closely by the European Union, which is very interested in its unique and replicable approach to complex problems.
When a child is labeled "mentally retarded" or disabled by the education or health care system, Czech officials have an established tradition of recommending that he or she be institutionalized. The large government institutions are underequipped and understaffed, and they frequently provide low-quality care and little education or training for their residents. In addition, institutions serve as a barrier between the special children and the community, thus retarding their socialization and healthy cognitive development as well as fostering an attitude within regular Czech society that they are a burden and a drain and cannot be productive members of the social group.
Once placed in the custody of an institution, an individual becomes the smallest cog in the organization taking care of him or her, an object without autonomy. Decisions about the individual's welfare are in the hands of a distant bureaucracy. Although the staffs of the institutions often work in good faith, many become discouraged and lack incentive to generate new ideas to stimulate their clients.
The social care system is not the only area of society in need of reform and revitalization; so are many Czech villages and rural communities. Many are faced with a variety of chronic problems, including low productivity, high unemployment and environmental decay. A significant number have been abandoned altogether.
In order to improve the quality of life and autonomy of special needs children, Milan has founded and serves as the chairman of the Babka Organization; its name is a diminutive for "grandmother" in the Czech language. Working from his base in a small town outside of Prague, Milan pursues two main strategies: First, he is committed to the transformation of state institutions into a network of social services united under Babka's supervision, and he has officially applied to government authorities to approve his plan. Second, he is creating a network of regional programs that integrate "special" children into their local communities.
Milan and his organization have started several pilot programs that he plans to implement on a national and regional scale as they mature. Each program is named after a child in the program. Gabriella Pelechova's Schools constitute a program that integrates "special" children into mainstream community schools. This allows for interaction between the "special" children and "normal" children. After beginning with two pilot special classes in a local school, one class for children who have difficulty communicating and another for physically handicapped children, Milan has gained the approval of local authorities to establish an expanded and logical continuation of his education program-a private school for children from his region that will serve the needs of both disabled and nondisabled children. This program is receiving a great deal of attention both nationally and internationally and is funded by a Swiss organization.
Milan's Ondrej Kubik Agency, which is based in Prague, recruits families to serve as foster parents to children and individuals currently in institutions. In exchange for this service the families receive payments from the government to help cover the additional expenses. The agency conducts an extremely thorough family selection process. This helps ensure that the individuals receive higher quality care than they would in the institutionalized system.
The Kubka's Wood Estate Project serves as a model for the wider use of special individuals in community-based development projects. In the Nova Viska region, a part of the Czech Republic that has numerous abandoned villages and farms, it has established a goat and rabbit farm where some disabled and homeless people from the region now work. They received training through Babka and are successfully communicating and working together. The work in Nova Viska is financed by the Rotary Club of Switzerland. In another village, Vilemov, Milan has rented and restored a building to serve his clients' needs. Besides providing living spaces, it is the site of a working space where Milan's clients make ecologically friendly products and a shop where they are sold. Milan has also obtained a deserted but beautiful former railway station; it will serve as an art studio for the children in his program and will be open to anyone from the community who wishes to use it. This program is currently funded by the European Union.
Milan believes that these projects will serve as the basis for wide-scale reform and the eventual end of the institutional system pervasive throughout the Czech Republic and other countries of the former Soviet bloc.
Previously, Milan was the head of one of the large institutions that care for special individuals. He left this position so that he could devote all of his time to his project. It was during his tenure as an institution director that he became keenly aware of the need to construct a completely new system of care that emphasizes community involvement and not isolation.
He has a degree in philosophy, which he earned from a university in his home province of Moravia. All who meet him are amazed at his energy level and his capacity for creative and innovative ideas.