Breaking Barriers

Breaking Barriers

Chaldean Foundation creating programs for people with disabilities


By Weam Namou


They may be people with disabilities, but they are very able to learn new skills and make new friends. That is exactly what participants in the Breaking Barriers program are doing.


“We create programs that are not offered elsewhere in the community,” said Sue Kattula, manager of Breaking Barriers, a program that started in 2012 at the Chaldean Community Foundation (CCF) in Sterling Heights.


Breaking Barriers assists people with mental and physical disabilities including blindness, deafness, Down Syndrome and autism. Most of their 441 clients are refugees trying to adjust and acclimate in America. Prior to the program, they did not have the types of resources that CCF provides them with such as literacy, medical transportation, and social events catered to families with a disabled child.


“At home, everything revolves around the disabled person,” Kattula said. “We try to understand the needs of the families and offer them assistance.”


Due to the awkward situations that may arise in public due to a disabled child’s behavior or because of limited resources, families felt that they couldn’t participate in community events. In response, monthly events were created where families can come together to enjoy food, entertainment, and activities at no charge. The themes of the events vary depending on the season. They celebrated Mother’s Day in May, in June they will celebrate graduates and Father’s Day, and in July, they’re planning a family picnic.


“Our senses are gifts from God and everyone is amazing in their own way,” said Rand Dallo, case manager of the program. “People take life for granted and that’s the sad part, but not the people here,”


Breaking Barriers has two main projects, one of which is BEAM (Blind, English Second Language [ESL], Acculturation in America, Mobility). This is an ESL program where participants learn to speak English, read through braille and become more independent through classes that are conducted once a week.


“Classes are taught on a group and individual basis depending on each student’s needs and goals,” Kattula said. “We focus on the students’ abilities and what they can do, not their disabilities and what they can’t do.”


Ziyad Meshaal, a Mandaean who was born blind in Iraq, came to the United States nine years ago. When he heard that computer classes were offered for the blind, he was very excited that he’d be meeting new people, not just because they were blind but because they speak Arabic. He has been in the program for a year-and-a-half and is grateful for the computer software they’ve made available, which most blind people are not aware of.


“Even if they know about it, they wouldn’t have access to it,” Meshaal said, “because it’s super, super, super expensive.”


In his mid-20s, Meshaal has obtained his associates degree in liberal arts and is going to Wayne State University where he’ll be studying computer science and IT. He has a number of apps on his iPhone which enable the blind to do most, if not more of what the average person could do.  He shared the story of when his professor told him that he couldn’t do some things because he’s blind. He told her, “Let’s play a game. We’ll go to the computer screen and type.”


When the professor looked at the black screen, she said, “I can’t type using a black screen.”


He replied, “See, there are some things that you can’t do that blind people can do.”


The other major program of Breaking Barriers is HEAL (Hard of hearing, ESL, American Sign Language [ASL], Life skills) which serves 53 deaf people.


“Because they hadn’t gone to school, we noticed that each deaf person had their own way of signing to communicate with their families at home,” Kattula said. “We said now that they’re in America, they need to learn American Sign Language.”


So ESL and ASL classes, led by Phyllis Harbaugh, were created to teach them. Currently, there are 15 students in the class and not all are deaf. Some participate because they have someone at home who is deaf, and once they learn sign language, they teach other family members.


“We want them to communicate with everyone in America, not just their family members,” Harbaugh said. “What we teach is a universal language that gives them a common joining together.”


A few of the students had gone to school for the deaf in Iraq, but didn’t find it helpful. It was mostly lip reading, the class went too fast, and they had difficulty catching up or learning anything. It wasn’t until they came to the United States that they were able to not only learn, but also attend mass for the deaf.


“Many wanted to be closer to their faith and they had never heard mass, so steps were taken to make that possible for them,” Kattula said.


Harbaugh’s husband is a minister at Memorial Baptist Church where the whole congregation is deaf. With some assistance from Kattula, she interprets mass using Sign Language every second Sunday at 10:30 am at St. Joseph Church, and twice a month, the second and fourth Thursday, there’s Bible Study from 7 to 8:30 p.m.


Participants in Breaking Barriers have not only gained knowledge and skills which help them be more self-sufficient, but they had fun doing so. They’ve made new friends and two people, who met each other through BEAM, got married in 2015 and are expecting a baby girl in August.


“I’m passionate about helping people with special needs,” said Dallo. “I love it.”


“I see that,” said Meshaal.


“You see that in your heart?” Dallo asked.


“Yes, I see through my heart,” replied Meshaal.