USAID is commemorating International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which is observed on December 3rd worldwide. According to the UN, persons with disabilities make up an estimated 15 percent of the world’s population. Below is a blog post from Montenegro exemplifying how our agency and partner organizations work to improve the lives of persons with disabilities in developing countries.

The Strength of a Mother’s Love: The Story of How USAID and ORT Are Helping a Mother Build a Better Future for her Son and Other Young Disabled Adults

I feel that I share a special connection with Vesna Odalović because our sons were both born in the same hospital on the same day, but two decades apart. Vesna believes that this means we were destined to meet. But fate can be cruel and random: Vesna’s son, Saša, developed signs of autism when he was one year old.

“He went from being a happy, verbal little boy to a silent, withdrawn one almost overnight,” she says sadly.

By the time Saša was six, he had a store of only 15 words. He struggled to communicate with the outside world, and was very shy. But 15 years later, Saša is a happy, talkative young man who answers the phone to clients, performs complex graphic design tasks, and is considered (by his mother) to be the only responsible one in the four-member Odalović family!

What has made the difference? Simply, the sheer determination of a mother that her son would grow up to be an independent, self-confident young man. It was this that drove Vesna to establish “Our ID Card”, a graphic design and printing house that exclusively employs young adults with disabilities. It is the first social enterprise in Montenegro, a business whose goal is not profit-making but rather the integration of young adults with disabilities into the economic and social life of the community.

World ORT (Obshestvo Remeslenofo zemledelcheskofo Truda in Russian), one of the largest Education and Training NGOs in the world was awarded a grant from USAID’s Democracy and Humanitarian Assistance office  (DCHA) to support the work of this organization through a special program established to increase the participation of people with disabilities in USAID developments efforts. Thanks to this program, Saša works for his mother’s company along with five other people with disabilities. They are able to gain valuable technical and social skills, not to mention self-confidence and increased self-worth.

“Our speech therapist says that the improvement in Saša’s speech since he has started work is nothing short of a miracle”, says Vesna, glowing with pride and happiness. “The other day he dealt with a difficult customer all on his own – something that would have been unthinkable only a year ago.”

Vesna’s fight for her son is her willingness has made her go to bat for other young adults with disabilities in her community, hence her status as “den mother” at the printing house. Vesna is particularly proud of group member Ana Moraćinim, a 22-year-old orphan from the nearby state orphanage with speech, hearing, and motor difficulties. When she first joined the organization, Ana was poorly socialized and unable to make eye contact, shake hands with someone, or prepare a cup of coffee—now she is a happy, well-adjusted young adult who is able to live and operate independently for the first time in her life.

“The attention and socialization she gets here, as part of a team, has been like the sun on the face of a closed flower,” Vesna says.

Vesna’s achievements are nothing less than heroic when you consider the obstacles in her way. Companies are very slow to hire people with disabilities in Montenegro.  In fact, out of the 10 persons with disabilities officially employed in Montenegro, six are employed by Vesna. For this reason, she is especially grateful to USAID and ORT’s grant that provides  support for the jobs of the six young people, as well as provide valuable training, technical assistance, mentoring, and companionship.

Just as I was getting together my bags to leave, Saša started to head out the door of the printing house and his mother asked him where he was going. “To the toilet,” he said, rolling his eyes at her as if to say “Relax, mom!” He seemed like any other, normal young man, chafing at his mother’s fussing. I looked at Vesna and saw that she was grateful for even this. But it wouldn’t have happened without her or the printing house—now that is something we at USAID and ORT are proud to be a part of.