Belgian company helps people with disabilities develop their talents and play a bigger role in society

Glorian Verneert sings in a clear, steady voice against the beats he constructs as a DJ in his original song on YouTube called “Colors matters beautiful.”

“I don’t understand why we are put in a box because we have a handicap. This is who we are, we have feelings, too. I think that we can break out of this box… This is our story. Listen.”

It’s an appropriate anthem for Konekt, a Belgian company working on multiple fronts to develop the talents of people like Glorian and to create a world in which inclusive learning, living and working is the norm.

As in some other European countries, Belgium has a separate school system for disabled children. According to Koen Deweer, chief executive of the Konekt Group, many of the graduates of that system are lacking some self-knowledge.

In those schools, “there’s a lot of focus on the things that are difficult about having a disability,” he says. “So those youngsters graduate without great future perspective. They don’t know about themselves, which things they are good at. So, at Konekt, we support them to discover their talents and to put them in action in different contexts like work, family, local community.”

To that end, Konekt has several different training programmes for young adults who need cognitive support because of issues such as a mental disability, autism, acquired brain injury.

One programme is a training and internship to become a co-supervisor in preschools. Another programme is called Brake-Out. This is a three-year course in which peers, coaches and other supporters help young adults discover their talents and interests with a variety of activities. Glorian Verneert is in his first year of this programme. There is also a professional dance training programme and troupe called Platform-K that performs in Belgium and elsewhere.

Konekt also has a programme for supervisors, teachers and counsellors in non-profit and for-profit organisations.

“We want to inspire and train them in our strength-based approach as well so that more inclusive workplaces and environments can be created,” Koen says.

Expanding possibilities

Koen says that a level of discrimination against people with disabilities is built into society. This deprives the world of the skills and creativity of a whole segment of the population, and it deprives that group of opportunities to grow and learn. The discipline of dance is one small example.

“You don’t get an entrance to the dance schools just because of your disability,” he says. “So we train people to become a professional dancer, and we do that to demonstrate to dance schools and dance companies that it is really not correct to exclude them from this dance education.”

The programme has been a success. The Platform-K troupe performs productions throughout Europe and has a planned show in Hong Kong.

Konekt and its offshoots have won numerous awards for their work and, in the case of Platform-K, the artistry of its participants. Konekt’s Brake-Out training programme was a finalist in the 2019 Social Innovation Tournament, sponsored by the European Investment Bank Institute to help entrepreneurs tackle problems in society and the environment. In May, Brake-Out won the prestigious Queen Mathilde Prize in Belgium.

>@Konekt
Konekt’s Brake-Out training programme won the prestigious Queen Mathilde Prize in Belgium ©Konekt

Konekt’s other programmes have also earned plaudits. The training to become a co-supervisor in preschool consists of 14 days of training and an internship for people with disabilities who are 18 or older and want to get to know and use their talents. They learn what it takes to work in a preschool, and they learn about the tasks that they would like to perform. 

“What we heard from parents and from the participants themselves was that their lives changed completely” after completing this programme, Koen says. “It made us happy that we could do such a great thing in such a short period, but at the same time it’s quite sad because they go to school five days a week for more than 20 years before then. That’s why we started Brake-Out.”

Koen says the idea was to reach people with disabilities over a longer period of time — three years — to explore many possibilities for creating a fulfilling life. In Brake-Out, eight students get together twice a week over three years to work with instructors and other participants in a variety of fields, in themes like housing, relationships, leisure, and work.

Participants try many different activities, including volunteer work, group projects, even things like animal care, or creating and performing music. Brake-Out has ongoing trainings in Ghent, Leuven, Antwerp, Bruges and Brussels.

Life with a purpose

For Glorian, it has been an eye-opening journey. “I like the most that we learn to do things we never did before, so we can discover some new things,” he says.

Glorian and his father keep bees, and one thing he learned in Brake-Out, he says, is that he can help others overcome their fear of bees and other animals. He’s also excited about pursuing his music, working under the name DJ the Wolf Master.

“I discovered that I’m a very good writer, so I’m writing my own songs and I’m writing them better now,” he says.

Although Glorian’s native language is Flemish, the song he posted on YouTube is in French and English.

“I’m a DJ, but I’m not doing it for money,” he says. “It’s a hobby. And my type of writing is that I want to get to very important questions or put light on things that are not often talked about.”

Society tends to protect and care for people with disabilities, Koen says, but this isn’t the most important thing that disabled people want.

“Everyone wants to be meaningful to another person or to this world,” he says. “This is no different for people with a disability. So let's stop with setting too low of expectations for them. Give people the chance to learn, to grow and to develop their full potential so that they, too, can take a visible, meaningful role in society.”