Brigitte van Haaften: ‘Creativity arises when two different worlds meet’

Brigitte van Haaften is director of the Stichting Dag- en Woonvoorzieningen West-Brabant (SDW), an organisation that provides support to people with a disability or developmental impairment. The CWF2019 approach – solving social issues through creativity and creative thinking – is all too familiar to her. “Creativity arises when two different worlds meet,” according to Van Haaften.

The two worlds that Brigitte van Haaften aims to connect are those of people with and without a mental disability. “Why? Because if you experience the other world, you start to view your own world in a different light,” she says. “That’s why it would be great if we considered what people with a mental disability need but also, perhaps more importantly, what society requires from them. In order to face the adversities of life, you need to be resilient. But resilience requires practice and being in contact with people with a mental disability is a very good way to practice. That’s because you open up during such an interaction. People with a mental disability never put on an act and they won’t accept it if you do. We can use this challenge to become stronger ourselves and gain the resilience needed to face adversities.”

‘Resilience requires practice and being in contact with people with a mental disability is a very good way to practice’

Inclusive society

Van Haaften began her career as a remedial educationalist. In her student years, she came into contact with people with a mental disability. “I became interested in their way of thinking and behaving, and I never lost that interest. Before I started working at the SDW, I had been a representative of the province of North Brabant for years. This meant that I was at the inception of the province’s membership of the Districts of Creativity Network, which has plenty of discussions on ways to improve our society. Since I started working at the SDW, it has been my mission to show society how worthwhile people with a mental disability can be. We can only call our society inclusive if vulnerable people are no longer seen as a drain on society but as people who are able to contribute. If we allow this group of people to be a normal part of our daily lives – at work, on the street, at the sports club – then we are truly doing things as a community. And doing things as a community makes us stronger individually.”

‘What role could people with a mental disability have in preventing burn-out?

A free portion of patience

“I see great practical examples of this in my daily life. For example, there is a lunch room where people with a mental disability work. The customers don’t always know this. I go there regularly and things can be a little sloppy at times, with the service, for example. But you never see anyone getting angry about it, even if people seem to have shorter fuses these days. Customers get a free portion of patience in this lunch room. What happens there that makes people stay calm in such situations? Another good example is a man who works for us as a volunteer. He told me the other day that every Wednesday he does something nice with someone who has a mental disability. So I asked him what sort of things he did. ‘Something tough and masculine?’ I assumed. ‘Not at all,’ he replied. ‘Every Wednesday afternoon, we walk to the Roosendaal train station, get a cup of coffee, sit on a bench and just watch the trains.’ I asked him if it wasn’t a bit dull, watching trains week after week. ‘It’s my weekly relaxation time,’ he said. ‘I have a very busy job but those 90 minutes on Wednesdays are sacred to me. We just talk about random things and I truly get to live in the moment without any distractions. It really is a relief,’ he said.”

“This type of story gets you thinking: what role could people with a mental disability have in preventing burn-out? Just by being there, with no ulterior motive. That is what these people invite us to do: To keep things simple and just be there for them, like they are for us. Be equal. It’s that simple.”

‘Openness requires far more than simply allowing people with a mental disability to live in the neighbourhood as much as possible’

Organising meetings

Does Van Haaften think her dream of an inclusive society is getting closer? “I have a positive mindset, so I always see opportunities. But I don’t see it happening yet and that’s because it doesn’t happen automatically. Openness requires far more than simply allowing people with a mental disability to live in the neighbourhood as much as possible. And I view this fact as an appeal to myself and our sector to help. Both people with a mental disability and society as a whole are reluctant to act. But we know the target group, so it is up to us to help both groups. How do we do so? By organising meetings to help people realise that there is actually something in it for them. In other words, meetings should not be based on charity – they can be beneficial to everyone involved.’

Meet Brigitte van Haaften at day 3 in Eindhoven >

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