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AP Photos: Disabled Romanian children given chance to shine

BUCHAREST – During Romania's communist era, children with disabilities were shunned, often locked away in institutions or kept at home and deprived of schooling and social interactions.

Recent shows in which children with Down syndrome had the starring roles illustrate how much that has changed since communism fell in 1989.

At one event in Bucharest, youngsters with the genetic disorder staged a fashion show parading their own creations. The children also performed with a ballet ensemble on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in early December.

“The two shows were their chance to shine, to feel important and talented, to feel they bring a contribution to the world we live in," said Georgeta Bucur, who leads the Down Plus Association, which promotes the inclusion in Romanian society of people with Down Syndrome.

Since the pair of events, there have been others in the Romanian capital.

Bucur emphasized the positive impact such events have on children with Down syndrome, though she said that societal prejudice against them still exists. She also stressed the love and warmth the children give to those around them.

“They teach us a new lesson every single day,” Bucur said. "Spending even a little time together with them will make anyone change their views.”

Being born with either a mental or physical disability in pre-1989 Romania was almost equivalent to a life prison sentence. The unluckiest ones were surrendered to state care immediately after birth, which usually meant a lifetime inside institutions.

Most of these facilities were outside cities and sometimes housed more than 350 people, with children and adults often housed together. UNICEF has said these institutions did not offer minimally decent living standards.

In 1992, legislation was passed recognizing the rights of Romanians, opening up new opportunities in education and employment.

During the recent fashion show, dubbed “heART Couture,” children showed off drawings they did themselves or which were produced by a professional designer who created images interpreting the kids' suggestions. Most showed portraits of wide-eyed characters, and messages written in English focused on love and family.

Many of the children beamed as they received applause and cheers.

The two-hour dance show featured ethnic and classical dances, with children and adults wearing traditional Romanian folk costumes as they performed alongside members of Bucharest’s Arabesque Children’s Ballet Ensemble.

“People with Down offer everyone sincere and unconditional love,” Bucur said. “Living alongside them makes one overcome the focus on materialism, enjoy the small things in life and care for one another."