EXPERIENCE: Bringing the 'Snoezelroom' for Disabled Children to Taiwan

EXPERIENCE: Bringing the 'Snoezelroom' for Disabled Children to Taiwan
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maureen Welscher

What you need to know

Lessons in love stretch from the Netherlands to Taiwan

When Dominque Geels, now 54, wanted to have children with her then-husband, she knew one thing for sure: There were enough children in the world who were looking for a good home. She was more than willing to adopt. And it did not necessarily have to be a healthy child. A handicap – even a severe disability – was not a problem.

And so, Zoë (now 25), Maxime (23) and Luuk (20) came into their lives. Three children adopted from Taiwan via Cathwel, a children’s home in Taiwan, all with varying special needs – of which Zoë’s is the most severe.

Cathwel Service is a branch of Catholic Relief Services, the relief and development agency of the United States Catholic bishops. The Taiwan agency was officially established in 1971 to take care of premature and abandoned children, and to offer shelter and counseling to unwed mothers.

Dominique’s story

Zoë, due to a very complicated delivery in which she was deprived of oxygen, has the developmental level of a six-week-old baby. She cannot talk, walk, or sit upright. She cannot eat independently; she is fed through a tube. Furthermore, she is blind, heavily spastic, epileptic, and has an immeasurably low IQ.

When we were presented with her, we were not sure how she would develop. Because she was so young, her medical record was also very short.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maureen Welscher
Zoë is cradled by her mother, Dominique, at home in the Netherlands.

But we knew we could handle it. I believe in challenges, not limitations. We were happy to take this on.

No matter how uncertain the future would be, we knew one thing for sure: Zoë would be better off in the Netherlands than in Taiwan. Here, she had parents available 24 hours a day. At the time, disabled people in Taiwan were still tucked away in homes. You never saw them on the street, in public life. Many people lacked health insurance, so care for a disabled child was expensive. But beyond that, parents saw a disabled child as a curse and a disgrace.

Because Zoë needed such intensive support, I quit my job. What hit us most was that Zoë only slept three hours a day – and those three hours of sleep were not necessarily at night. Because she could not eat by herself and spat a lot, Zoë became dehydrated and was hospitalized for over nine months. Zoë needed full-time medical care which we could not provide at home. A week after her first birthday, we placed her in a special home for mentally disabled children near our hometown. Zoë immediately became their most severe case.

In that home, there was a snoezelroom: a therapeutic area for those with intellectual disabilities which stimulates the senses. Zoë is fond of cuddling, lying against you, and listening to songs. Massaging, foot baths, combing hair: Zoë cannot get enough of it. She absolutely loved that room. She instantly relaxed when she lay on the mattress. Listening to the music, ribbons running down her face, her fingers stroking the “feeler” walls that felt soft and then brush-hard again.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maureen Welscher
Zoë is tended to by her adopted brother Luuk.

‘My Parents’: Following Taiwan’s adopted disabled children

The director of Cathwel in Taiwan, Sister Rosa, asked regularly how Zoë was doing. Zoë has always had a very special place in Sister Rosa's heart. On one occasion, a delegation from Taiwan came to the Netherlands to be present at the annual family day of Meiling, our adoption association. With this delegation, we traveled around the Netherlands and, of course, we visited Zoë.

Sister Rosa was moved by the way we treated handicapped people in the Netherlands, seeing that, with the right care and stimulation, anything is possible. She was particularly impressed by Zoë’s refuge, the snoezelroom.

Sister Rosa wanted to raise awareness for disabled people in Taiwan and show adoption in practice. She decided to make a film about the way we treated the disabled in the Netherlands. Five families were selected who had adopted a Taiwanese child via Cathwel with significant special needs. A film crew from Taiwan came to film the handicapped children, visiting the adoptive families and the institutions that work with disabled people.

The crew also followed myself and Zoë. They filmed, among other things, me cuddling with Zoë. The crew was surprised to see how lovingly we deal with handicapped children here in the Netherlands, offering them therapies to stimulate and develop them that were entirely unknown in Taiwan.

In an effort to change ingrained attitudes, Cathwel Service produced a film documentary featuring the lives of nine Taiwanese children and their five adoptive families in the Netherlands: "My Parents", which was released in 2003.

The agency hoped the film would help Taiwanese reconsider their attitudes about adoption, such as opting for male heirs and rejecting physically or mentally disabled children. Sister Rosa told UCA News at the time that in addition to a cultural preference for boys rather than girls, "many people in Taiwan influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and beliefs propagated by folk religions consider any abnormality the result of bad deeds done in one´s previous life."

The film struck a chord in Taiwan. Shortly after its completion, I visited Taipei and people stared at me in the street. For a moment I thought my sweater was inside out, or there was something on my face – until a Taiwanese acquaintance said: “No, you are a well-known person because of that documentary. It was broadcast on national television and watched by many people.”

I had thought that the documentary was meant for a small local television station, but it ended up becoming influential. The film is still being used by Taiwanese universities to show students how you can treat severely disabled people in a different way. “My Parents II” was released in 2014, visiting the same parents and adopted children who were followed in the first film.

Bringing the snoezelroom to Taiwan

A few years after the arrival of Zoë, I was asked by Cathwel if I wanted to help them to make a snoezelroom for the disabled children in Cathwel. We collected money through Meiling Project Aid, where I also worked as a volunteer, visiting Taipei several times a year. A number of adoptive parents in the Netherlands generously donated.

Photo Credit: Cathwel
The snoezelroom in Taipei.

Using the money we had raised, we shipped snoezel items in a large container from the Netherlands to Taiwan and, with the help of a Cathwel trainee, I assembled and decorated the snoezelroom. The room was completed in 2006 and is still in use today. I was last in Taiwan two years ago, with my youngest son, but I did not pay a visit to the snoezel room. I have no idea what it looks like now – it may need a renovation!

When I visited Taiwan to work with Meiling, I noticed that I often saw disabled people in public. This group seemed slightly more accepted. Twenty-five years ago, this was unthinkable. You see disabled people more often in the streets now, but not like in the Netherlands. And, compared to the Netherlands, life is significantly harder for the disabled in Taiwan. Here you can generally get anywhere with your wheelchair. In Taiwan, there are large curbs, embankments, and other street-level obstacles that impede people in wheelchairs. Subsidies for the disabled are also much lower in Taiwan.

Photo Credit: Cathwel

There is still a taboo on disabled people, and many Taiwanese people are wary of them. But I see that the image of disabled people is changing. While it will take years, I think Taiwan is on the right track.

Sometimes, people ask us why we chose to adopt such a severely handicapped girl. We simply wanted to give a forgotten child a chance to be herself in our family. Zoë always makes us happy by taking us back to the basics. She is so pure. When we sit on a sunny day together in the garden under the apple tree to enjoy the weather, I think: This is a day with a golden edge. I still say to this day: “I have never regretted it for a moment and would do it again!”

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall