Inclusion in Europe – An analysis of the Status Quo
Inclusion in Europe – An analysis of the Status Quo
Accessibility, inclusion and participation are just three of the central principles outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). They give clear directions to all countries that have ratified the UNCRPD. But how well do the individual nations actually fulfill and implement the requirements set forth by the United Nations Convention?
"Participation instead of exclusion" is an essential demand of people with disabilities, which should also be implemented with the help of the UNCRPD.
"Inclusion means that all people have equal rights, equal opportunities and equal responsibilities," says Alejandro Moledo of the European Disability Forum (EDF). After all, inclusion can only succeed if we understand and embrace human diversity. It is also the only way to fully participate in meaningful social activities. However, "people with disabilities find many barriers in their everyday life, when it comes to first of all accessibility which is necessary to enjoy all the rights of the UNCRPD. By a lack of accessibility, people with disabilities cannot fully take advantage of all the rights that non-disabled people have – such as free movement, transport services, access in culture, leisure, sports, and obviously employment and education," Moledo emphasizes. The European Disability Forum is the European umbrella organization that represents and defends the interests of people with disabilities. "We are an united voice towards the EU institutions," Moledo explains. "Our main goal is to ensure that the EU in its competences do implement and monitor the implementation of the UNCRPD. And to do so we focus on different areas, such as accessibility to the environment and to transport services, accessibility to new technologies, to information and communication technologies (ICT), to assistive technologies. Also we have obviously a strong focus on social policies."
It should be possible for all teachers to recognise and promote the child's strengths – regardless of whether the child has a disability or not.
While the EDF advocates for people with different disabilities in general, Inclusion Europe and Inclusion International are international organizations that particularly represent people with learning disabilities (so-called intellectual disabilities) and support them in fighting for their rights. Based on her many years of experience, Maureen Piggot knows that people with learning difficulties repeatedly point to one major challenge they keep facing: mainstream society’s attitude and behavior towards them. "First, there is the 'can’t do' attitude. When a developmental delay, impairment or condition like Down Syndrome is recognised, parents can be overwhelmed with information about what their child can’t do," explains Piggot. "The next is 'You don’t belong here.' When seeking a place at kindergarten or school they may get both messages, 'Sorry, we can’t take your child. You see, we can’t meet his or her needs. He or she would be better at a special school where they have all the necessary expertise and equipment.' Inclusion is thought to be too difficult, too expensive and someone else’s responsibility. Yet, in my experience, for the majority of children with an intellectual disability it is neither."
Meanwhile, this is ultimately merely a question of identifying the child's strengths and, subsequently, breaking tasks down into smaller tasks, giving clear instructions and allowing more time. According to Piggot, these are skills that teachers should generally already have in their arsenal. Needless to say, some children have multiple disabilities, making their needs more complex, which requires more expert guidance and support. Yet even those challenges can be met with prior proper planning. She adds that the same applies to professional settings. Having said that, it requires the commitment and the determination of both parties to find the right job that fits the person’s unique skills, abilities, and interests. That’s when people with intellectual difficulties can work in media settings, in IT, in customer service or sports coaching. Similarly, the rehabilitation sector has the potential to provide many opportunities of this nature.
"The attitudinal challenges and professional resistance to inclusion is found world wide. It takes slightly different forms in different countries and cultures," says Piggot. Having said that, there are already many great solutions that show how this can work when put into practice: "In South Africa, where I was born I have come across good services in early intervention, pedagogical support for inclusive education and supported employment. New Brunswick in Canada stands out in terms of inclusive education. Austria and Italy have had progressive educational policies, although there does appear to be some back-sliding since the economic crisis. In Australia they are developing supported decision-making systems to ensure people are able to exercise legal capacity a prerequisite for full status as a citizen."
At the M-Enabling Forum which took place alongside REHACARE 2019, Maureen Piggot (Inclusion Europe), Alejandro Moledo (EDF) and Susanna Laurin (Funka) also were speakers on stage. Furthermore, EDF and Funka have supported the conference on digital and assistive technologies since its very beginning.
Both Piggot and Moledo believe that the rights of people with disabilities in Europe keep evolving – also as a result of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. "But we have countries in Europe which are progressing more on certain aspects – accessibility, transport services –, others are more focused on support needs. So it is very difficult to say which country in Europe is better. No country is perfect," Moledo sums up the situation and adds, "In my area of expertise, which is accessibility, I can tell you, that the U.S. has been always leading in terms of accessibility legislation. And now finally Europe is getting up."
Organizations like the European Disability Forum or Inclusion Europe want to ensure that the voices and opinions of people with disabilities get heard and included when it comes to all European matters and decisions. That’s also why a seemingly minor change to the 2019 European elections marked a big moment in the history of the inclusion movement: "With voters with intellectual disabilities participating for the first time in several countries and with great public visibility, this was an occasion to enjoy. Inclusion Europe campaigned under the banner, 'This time I’m voting', as voters in Denmark, France, Germany and Spain who were previously excluded by guardianship laws took part in the elections for the first time," says Piggot.
It is also up to people without disabilities to make sure that more is done for accessibility. Everyone can help to make society more inclusive for all.
This long overdue step toward more (political) participation highlights inclusion as a human right. And according to Piggot, inclusion is everyone’s responsibility: "Whether it is a train station that does not have clear public signage or your child’s school that does not have a single child with Down Syndrome, we need to speak up. Observe whether playgrounds, schools, sports centres and libraries in your area are welcoming people with intellectual disabilities and comment on it. Ask whether they produce information in Easy To Read, whether their staff have had disability equality training, what other efforts they have made to make the facilities accessible. Stand up for inclusion and watch how all of us benefit."
Both Piggot and Moledo know that an inclusive society would be a better society. After all, this is the only way to ensure equal participation in social, professional and political life – whether people have a visible or invisible disability. That's why Moledo is sure that "we need to understand and embrace human diversity, first of all".