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 For a Good Rehab, Call Centrum Paraple in Prague
 by Alan Toy (New Mobility, March 2006)

"Máte otevřené dveře u auta."

The night watchman at the Centrum Paraple in Prague was trying to tell us something quite urgent. Our son, John Henry and I looked expectantly at my wife, Theresa, waiting for her to translate this critical message. After all, she had been studying Czech for a year at UCLA to help us out in situations like this. But she was just as perplexed as we were. This did not bode well. We had only been in-country for less than two hours. It was evening and we were at a strange place that we knew little or nothing about, talking to a man who knew less English than we knew Czech. All I wanted to do was go see our rooms and then unpack the car if everything was okay. And before he would let us into the building, this fellow was insisting that we understand what he was trying to tell us.

He said it again. This time he acted out his words with animated gestures, while pointing at our rented car, which was parked in front of the Centrum.

Oh……yeah.

In our excitement and nervousness about arriving we had left all of our doors wide open. He was simply trying to let us know that wasn’t a particularly good idea. Thank goodness for the power of sign language. After locking the car, we all had a good laugh and went up to see the rooms.

The Centrum Paraple was recommended to us by the aunt of a Czech classmate of Theresa’s. We had been to Prague twice before and the lodging in the less expensive categories had been okay, but less than accessible. So we followed this tip and found out that the Paraplegic Center offered rooms to visiting tourists with disabilities, at a rate that was a quarter of anything we had ever found before. (Rooms for foreign visitors are about $15 per person, subject to availability – the consumers get first dibs on the ten rooms.)

We quickly discovered that the rooms, while Spartan by any hotel’s standards, were as accessible as anything we had ever seen. Beyond all of the accommodations we have come to expect like roll-in showers, paddle handles, etc, there were even mirrors in the bathrooms which adjusted to your height when you waved a hand in front of them. The single beds were adjustable and comfortable. A light breakfast in the on-site café was included.

We seemed to be the only guests there, so we unpacked and then went into downtown to get some dinner, practice Theresa’s Czech and be touristy. When we got back at about 11, there were several cars with people - young men and women, some disabled, some not – in the parking lot, all just hanging out and onto each other. They later moved to a fire pit in the back garden and partied loudly and joyously into the early morning hours.

What kind of place is this?!!

As I found out the next day from the Executive Director, the Centrum is the information, counselling and rehabilitation center of the Czech Union of Paraplegics, an organization of people paralyzed after spinal cord injuries, which was founded in 1990. It offers post-hospital rehabilitation programs and much, much more – stuff we look to independent living centers for - like peer support, assistive technology, benefits counselling and so on. People come for the day or for a couple of weeks, depending on their needs and the programs they are participating in, which also include physical rehabilitation and acclimation to full participation in society, while also building a feeling of proud membership in the disability community among the clients.

There are also healthy doses of in-your-face sexuality, youth-oriented sports activities and serious fun thrown in. The small café, situated next to the physical therapy room on the ground floor, offers beer and wine, true to its European locale. The party the night before was probably fuelled by stronger intoxicants. Where can you find a computer lab and a brew in an American ILC? The mostly young and attractive staff is comprised of people with and without disabilities, and they were all helpful to visitors, foreign and domestic.

Most of the consumers at Centrum Paraple are young too, between the ages of 17 and 30. The majority are young men, often automobile or sports accident survivors, who live at home in inaccessible environments with families overwhelmed by these new circumstances.

The Centrum’s goal is to contact recovering spinal cord patients as soon as possible after their injuries to help guide these clients back to lives with positive possibilities, access to appropriate goods and services and full integration back into their communities. Their services include, among other things, help with continuing academic studies, home modifications, buying and driving accessible vehicles, employment development and relationship counseling.

With the help of Czech actor and screenwriter, Zdeněk Svěrák, The Union of Paraplegics opened Centrum Paraple in 1994. Svěrák is best known to American audiences as the star and writer of "Kolya", the 1996 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. He is the President of the Paraple Account, a foundation that supports the center. Each year, Czech Television airs a program called Charity Academy, which features arts and culture performances and benefits the Account. An annual Run for Paraple also raises money. Skoda, the Czech auto manufacturer, is a contributor to the Centrum as well as Český Rozhlas radio broadcasters and the publishers of "DNES" newspaper. From the government side, the Ministry of Work and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Health and the City Council of Prague all support the Centrum's programs.

Some of the most popular events among the staff and the consumers are the trips into the Czech countryside. The week we were there, almost everyone had just returned from a wheelchair/bike road trip. The constant rain had dampened bodies but not spirits. These ventures have led to a website project showing accessible accommodations and barrier free travel experiences in the Czech Republic for visitors with disabilities. (www.svozikemnacestach.cz – it is mostly in Czech, but has an English page)

The Centrum gets most of its referrals from the rehabilitation hospitals in the Czech Republic and it would be easy to say it is just another stop on the rehabilitation continuum. But those behind the center and their more than 1000 annual consumers have had a lasting impact on the way people with disabilities are viewed and accepted in the Czech Republic. Their impact reaches into areas of policy change, public education and empowerment.

And most significantly, they know how to party!!


last update: 04-08-06
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