Romanian IT developer: 'Stairs never stopped me'
To get to the first floor of a 19-century villa in the diplomatic quarter of Bucharest, the staircase winds narrowly like a snail house and there is no elevator. Thirty-three-year old Iulian Craciun sits in the office on the left, tapping away on a laptop and with a tablet computer nearby. His body looks frail, in the wheelchair, but his mind and sense of humour are sharp.
"Stairs never stopped me. If they had, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere, would I?" the IT developer quips. The office he works from belongs to one of the best known head hunters in Bucharest. Craciun has also worked for firms like BMW, Nestle, various banks and even Romania's top football club Steaua.
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With spinal muscular atrophy - a genetic disease disrupting brain impulses - his muscles are weak and he is wheelchair-bound. But that has not stopped him from taking trips abroad or hiking with friends in the mountains. "Never give up" is his favourite motto. Three years ago, he got married and now he has a one-year old daughter.
He's come a long way. Growing up in the bleakest years of communist Romania, there were several medical glitches - such as hooking him up to a respirator when he got pneumonia, but forgetting to turn it on. "I was operated once and then they gave me anti-biotics I was allergic to. So I went into coma. They gave me glucose, which worked. Only, they gave me too much and I re-entered the coma," he recalls.
Medical treatment has changed since communism times. An operation he had in 2009 inserting 1m-long metal rods along his spine clearly helped and allows him to breathe without a corset. "It's also technology that evolved, not just the doctors. First operations reduced my body weight by 40 percent, even though they were less invasive as this one. This time, I only lost 1.5 kg," Craciun explains.
But most of his success he owes to his mother, who insisted he should go to school, despite his condition. "It was thanks to her perseverance that I am here. She did it out of instinct, but it was very good. The first teacher she went to told her I should be put in a 'special' school for disabled people. Which meant a school for mentally disabled. She refused and finally found a teacher who accepted me."
"There was no moment in school when I felt different. Kids are curious, so it matters a lot how you deal with that. If you're honest about it and don't make a big deal out of it, they accept you as you are. Surely there are people who will try to make fun of you, but that happens to everyone, not only to disabled people."
Romania's current social problems are for "people in general, not just disabled ones. The state can and should do more for disabled people, but if we wait for that, our lives would have gone by. Do what you can now for yourself, don't worry about what the state should do," Craciun says.
The worst problem of Romania's society is not corruption, brain-drain or poverty, he believes, but rather self-fulfilling prophecies. "Too many people are saying 'I can't do that, I have no connections.' Or 'nobody is helping me. I can't do it, because my voice doesn't matter anyway.' Giving up at the first door that closes."
He has experienced closed doors himself, particularly in his 20s when looking for a job. "The moment I showed up and they saw me, I was getting the standard 'sorry, but the job is already taken.' Of course it wasn't, they just didn't want anyone in a wheelchair." But after knocking on dozens of doors, he got hired by Dunarea leasing, at that time the third-largest leasing company in the country.
He also set up his own business together with a friend and started having prominent customers. "Sometimes I ended up working with people who had said no when I went for a job interview. They were pretty embarrassed. I wasn't. Just took their money," he smiles.
With Romanian media filled with scandals and small issues, Craciun says the post-Communist society is failing to establish positive models. Resignation and disgruntlement has become a national sport. "If your role-models are gold chain-wearing guys who crack sunflower seeds and get into fights all the time, that's what the society will follow. If your role model does smart things and generates work feeding 20 other families, others will try to copy that."
To put his money where his mouth is, Craciun has teamed up with two other friends and launched a motivational website, Startevo offering career advice through personal 'mentors' and videos with Romanian success stories.
The online community pooling around this website also helped him earlier this year, when he got hit by an SUV while at a pedestrian crossing. "The guy just rushed off, but the Startevo community was of tremendous help. Within one day, our site had over one million views and people sent us things like licence plate numbers and pictures of the car. A few days later, he turned himself in to the police and now he's on trial," Craciun says.
So much for the naysayers who told him it would not make any difference if he started that website or not.