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Interview with Bert Beelen, Passwerk Lifetime Achievement Award 2021 laureate

Bert, congratulations with your Passwerk Lifetime Achievement Award (PLAA) 2021! How do you feel about winning this award?

I remember the exact moment I got the message. I came from the Court of Appeals in Brussels and got a phone call from Dirk Rombaut. He said that Passwerk's board of directors had decided to award the PLAA 2021 to me. I was so surprised and immediately asked Dirk "Why me?" I think it's like this for many award winners, in my case anyway, since I find it completely 'normal' to give my all as soon as I start something. In any case, I was really proud to receive the award. And the people in my environment, the teachers at the school, the students' parents, family and friends were also very honoured. It's a great moment to expand the school and its future projects. The law firm already won two awards, this was the first for me.

You are a co-founder, together with your daughter Katrien and son-in-law Ted, of the school De Lift Education, a school specialised in ICT for youths with autism. Did autism already play a major role in your life?

My grandson Robrecht is a young man with a normal IQ, currently nineteen years old, who was diagnosed with ASS when he was four. Robrecht has difficulty communicating. In primary school, the special education classes were no problem. The problem started in secondary school. We wanted Robrecht to be able to study at his own intellectual level, but the current education system offers insufficient guarantees. He would probably end up in a waterfall system. This is the basis for why we founded our school De Lift Education.

Why did you start a school?

Initially, we wanted a secondary school where students could choose what they wanted to study. It became clear very quickly that this was impossible since it was not financially feasible and due to the one-on-one teaching method. So, we decided on a secondary computer science school for youths with an autism spectrum profile. This offers customised education with a focus on the labour market.

Where is De Lift Education at now?

Our school is located in Diest, at the Citadel. The rooms were made available to us by the city of Diest, which we are incredibly grateful for. De Lift Education offers education to youths from twelve years old with a normal or high IQ and with a very keen interest in computer science. Youths with an autism spectrum profile have specific (but often very discrepant) possibilities. Our individual approach allows them to better discover and develop their talents. Our school's slogan is 'free your talents'. The approach consists of concrete, practical, useful goals, such as: individual counselling and courses, customised breaks, visual support, a low-stimulus environment, promoting social-communicative skills, always starting from the interests of each student, small classes and very much geared towards the labour market.

What are the biggest challenges for De Lift Education?

We sometimes get students who have already tried two, three or even more different secondary schools where they – despite their normal or high IQ– are in danger of ending up in the waterfall system and sometimes even remaining at home. The big challenge for our school is helping those students excel and freeing their talents.

What are De Lift Education's biggest successes?

We are successful in that, after their studies, our students find a job or are ready to continue on to higher education. In general, we are not diploma-oriented as the primary goal of our school is for our students to be able to participate in the regular labour circuit after their studies. Of course. Those who wish to can obtain a diploma and we help them prepare for their exam with the exam commission, and this with great success.

Who, in or outside the autism world, have been a real inspiration to you for the school?

Thanks to Passwerk and their driving forces, namely Nico and Dirk, I came up with the idea to open our school. I read an article in the newspaper about Passwerk about ten years ago on a Saturday morning and quickly contacted Dirk Rombaut. His enthusiasm was clearly at the same level as mine, and Dirk brought me into contact with Cronos. It’s thanks to the support from Cronos that we can keep this initiative going.

Are their certain people you think should win the PLAA?

I'd have to say Nico and Dirk themselves, as the driving forces behind Passwerk. Or as an organisation, the PLAA could certainly be awarded to Cronos, or our school's principal Annemie Willekens, who has been, and remains, the driving force for the daily running of De Lift Education from the very first minute. This, of course, together with the other teachers and volunteers.

Your name will be immortalised on the plaque in our office, the hall in the Passwerk offices named after you, etc. How does that feel?

When I'm at certain business or government buildings, I often see a hall named after a particular person. That has always fascinated me. The fact that there is now a hall at the Passwerk office that bears my name feels a bit 'too glorified'.

Are there certain things at De Lift Education that you still want to achieve?

It would be amazing if everyone, no matter what their financial situation, could study at De Lift Education. One of my big wishes is that we – 'wherever it comes from' – would get financial support so that students whose parents don't have the financial means can also attend our school. Our school is not subsidised and we have to organise everything with the money from tuition fees, sponsoring and donations. We actually have three tasks: education, employment and wellbeing.

Do you have any other plans in the framework of autism?

Considering the extensive level of education in computer science and the fact that many of our students are very good at labelling and geolocalisation, we are currently working on the foundation of starting up our own business for our former students. Labelling and geolocalisation require an enormous amount of human effort, it is very detailed and intellectual work, which some of our students are extremely good at.

Do you have any advice for parents of a child with autism about their training, schooling, education?

To parents of a child with autism, I'd like to say: open up and explain to your environment what 'autism' entails. Don't hide it. Make sure your child can learn at his or her level, get the right counselling and you'll see that your child may be different but has talents to be very proud of. These are often talents that other children don't have.

According to you, what is the biggest misunderstanding about autism?

The biggest misunderstanding about autism is that it is a 'dysfunction'. It is absolutely not a dysfunction, possibly a limitation, but mainly another way of thinking.

What do you consider the highest priority in the framework of autism?

That people with autism get the chance to grow and develop in a normal manner, from the childhood years to finding a job. I think our school is a good example of this and that Passwerk has taken on that social task on the labour market in the most amazing way.

Is the inclusion of people with autism an important goal for you?

Including people with autism is of course extremely important. But I mean we shouldn't even have to be talking about it. For me it's only natural that people with autism participate in society, just like everyone else. I am even convinced that we can learn a great deal from people with autism with their straightforward and structured and detailed thinking and reacting all in a hectic and not always so honest human society.

Are certain political or policy-related optimisations needed?

The government must ensure that adapted training, education and employment are available to people with autism. I noticed something during a work visit to Denmark regarding employment by our king and queen, together with our ministers of labour from the various regions in Belgium. The delegation wanted to know more about the country’s employment model. The Danish Labour Minister, without being asked about it, pointed out, among other things, employing people with autism in the labour circuit and their extraordinary talents. Unfortunately, our government leaves many of these fantastic people on the sidelines. People who, nevertheless, can create enormous added value in the labour market.

What are the biggest challenges for a family with a child with autism?

The biggest challenges for a family with a child with autism is, within the context of the family and relationships, giving the specific extra attention the child with autism needs.

Do you have a final message for the reader?

To the reader, I'd like to say: if you want a true friend find someone with autism!!!

Is there anyone in particular you would like to thank for what you have achieved?

I would like to express my great thanks to Nico and Dirk from Passwerk, to Danny Geenens, to Dirk Deroost and Jef Dewit, the owners of Cronos, to all of our other sponsors and benefactors and especially to our teachers and volunteers at De Lift Education, to my grandson Robrecht who brings me joy every moment he's with me.

What has changed for the better since the foundation of De Lift Education?

It makes me really happy that, over a period of eight years, we have been able to train and educate so many young people with autism.


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