Spring 2018 saw the opening of a new bakery in the Kyiv satellite town of Brovary that marks the latest stage in an ambitious initiative aiming to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome while challenging stereotypes about mental disability in Ukrainian society. Mental health remains a taboo subject in today’s Ukraine, with mentally disabled people often excluded from society or institutionalized. The 21.3 Bakery aims to change this by creating possibilities for people with Down syndrome and other special needs to gain employment and interact more meaningfully with society.
The 21.3 Bakery is part of the broader Perspective 21/3 initiative that takes its name from the three copies of the twenty-third chromosome associated with Down syndrome. There is also a 21/3 school called Radist (Ukrainian for joy) in Kyiv which has been operating since 2010, while plans are advancing for a network of 21.3 cafes that will eventually provide the lion’s share of job opportunities for people with Down syndrome. The ultimate goal is to create a self-sustaining education and employment ecosystem capable of financing itself and reducing the project’s current reliance on support from donors to a minimum.
The 21/3 initiative is the brainchild of husband and wife team Arenda and Andriy Vasylenko. Andriy is the Country Director in Ukraine for Netherlands bakery company Zeelandia. He has received full support from his Dutch employers every step of the way. Zeelandia has provided financial backing for the 21/3 Perspective school and technical support for the 21.3 Bakery as part of a corporate social responsibility commitment that was written into the company’s foundation document in Ukraine when Zeelandia first entered the Ukrainian market back in 2003.
Andriy has first-hand experience of raising a child with Down syndrome in Ukraine. He recalls the moment when his son Petro was born in 2003 and doctors immediately tried to take the child away to an institution. “At the time, 70% of children born with Down syndrome were handed over to institutions right after birth,” he reflects. Andriy sees significant improvements in attitudes towards Down syndrome in Ukraine and points to the fact that over 95% of parents with Down syndrome babies in Kyiv region last year chose to raise their child within the family. Nevertheless, huge challenges remain. Andriy says children with Down syndrome remain isolated from Ukrainian society and are effectively “invisible”, adding to the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding the condition. Indeed, the word “Down” is a commonplace term of abuse in contemporary Ukrainian culture.
The 21/3 Perspective initiative has a three-pronged approach focusing on schooling, employment and independence. Andriy expects the new bakery to offer some training and job opportunities for Ukrainians with Down syndrome, but the main employer will be the planned 21.3 cafes, where the workforce will be 30% to 50% drawn from people with Down syndrome and other special needs. In preparation for their future entry into the workforce, the curriculum at the 21/3 school prepares special needs students by placing the emphasis on teaching them practical skills. This has meant the production of entirely new textbooks in collaboration with some of the world’s leading specialists including Oxford University. Meanwhile, a restaurant-style kitchen at the new bakery will help students to gain practical experience. “We want to create a sustainable model and show that it can work,” says Andriy.
By providing employment opportunities for people with Down syndrome, Andriy hopes to boost their quality of life and foster a greater sense of independence while also bringing them into contact with members of the public. “We want to demonstrate that people with Down syndrome have prospects and can contribute to society,” he says. “They have enormous empathy and they are cheerful. Yes, they do have disabilities, but we want to concentrate on their abilities instead.”
Andriy recognizes that the café concept must compete against deeply engrained social stigmas and says market research has shown most Ukrainians respond negatively towards any associations with Down syndrome. Nevertheless, he sees reason to believe the concept can gain acceptance over time. “I have already witnessed enormous changes in social attitudes towards Down syndrome in the past fifteen years,” says Andriy. “We now want people with Down syndrome to have more contact with the public in order to show they can play a role. We want to break down the old stereotypes.”