David is a typical teenager.
The 17-year-old from Varna, Bulgaria, enjoys working out, listening to music and rooting for Chelsea, his favorite soccer team, in the UEFA Champions League tournament.
He’s an older brother, a student-athlete and an aspiring politician who dreams of one day studying Balkan history at a local university.
This is not the life David’s parents expected for their eldest son, who was born premature and later diagnosed with visual impairment and severe cerebral palsy. Growing up under the watchful eye of doctors and therapists, every developmental milestone David reached came with a new set of hurdles to clear.
“No one believed David would be able to read or write braille when he first arrived at our school,” says Julieta Petkova, director of the Ivan Shishmanov School for the Blind, where David attends ninth grade. “The same goes for his mobility. Doctors said he would always need a walker. But now he’s walking on his own. It’s impressive.”
Accompanied by photographer Petrut Callinescu, I set out on a rainy Tuesday morning to document a day in the life of David. Our time together was filled with inspiring stories, deadpan jokes and lots of homework.
David walks to class with the aid of his mother, Galatea Popova, who serves as his personal assistant during the school day. David’s physical, social and academic development accelerated rapidly once he enrolled at the Ivan Shishmanov School for the Blind, home to one of the strongest multiple disability education programs in the Balkans. Perkins International has trained teachers here since the early 1990s.
David reads from a braille workbook in second-period English class. During a reading assignment, David is quick to help a classmate pronounce a tricky vocabulary word. When it’s his turn to read aloud, he effortlessly runs his fingers across the page, reciting a lengthy paragraph without missing a syllable. Of the 10 students crammed in this tiny classroom, David is by far the most talkative. It’s quite a transformation from several years ago, when he arrived at the school shy and unsure of himself.
Biology class begins with a lesson about viruses. David and his peers review tactile charts (made at the school’s in-house braille printing press) and type out notes on braille typewriters. The classroom shelves are stuffed with 3-D models of cells and organs. These learning tools, a staple in any science classroom, are particularly valuable at a school that educates 148 students with varying levels of visual impairment.
Physical therapy is a core element of David’s routine. He works out every day at home and up to three times per week at school with instructor Michael Kolev. “It does a lot for his physical development,” Kolev says of David’s time spent stretching, lifting weights and throwing shot put. His practice paid off in 2016, when David earned a second place finish in the shot put event at the Bulgarian Paralympics.
After school, David navigates the sidewalk outside his family’s third-floor flat. Climbing the 50 concrete steps is a challenge he takes on twice each day. David started using a walker at age 4, but after five successful leg surgeries, he can now move independently or with minimal support from a family member or classmate.
David lives with his parents (pictured here) and younger brother, Bozhidar, 15. Over a delicious spread of homemade bread, spices and honey, Galatea proudly passes around family pictures and shares her favorite stories from David’s childhood. Her husband, Hristo, remains very quiet. But when a guest asks what advice he can offer other fathers, he abruptly breaks down in tears. “Believe in your children,” he says.
David rides an exercise bike as his mother looks on. Even as he gets older, Galatea remains committed to helping David and other children and young adults with multiple disabilities. She’s a regular volunteer at David’s school and recently earned a psychology degree in hopes of one day opening a daycare center. Galatea believes a strong bond between parents and teachers is crucial. “This is the most important thing – to work together,” she says. “We all learn from each other. I now have higher expectations as a parent.”
With his after-school workout complete, David gets a jumpstart on his history homework before dinner. He’s always had an interest in politics and a knack for memorizing dates. Now, with his future in mind, he’s hoping those attributes will translate into passing grades on university entrance exams. “There is a Bulgarian song called, ‘I Believe,’” David tells me at the end of the day, “and I am trying to follow the motto of this song.”
For more on David and Perkins International’s efforts to improve blindness education in Bulgaria, read the story in Perspectives magazine.