A New Perspective

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The disability conference held in Nicosia, Cyprus on 27-28 March 2017 was the platform for Council of Europe’s new disability strategy for 2017-2023.

Representatives of the 47 Council of Europe member states, international organizations, local and regional authorities, professional networks, non-governmental organizations, media, academic world and specialized service providers, as well as persons with disabilities attended the ‘Human rights: a reality for all’ conference. They gathered to hear a range of speakers discuss the issues facing the 80 million people in Europe who live with a disability, but it was the new direction of the Council for Europe’s strategy that drew most attention.

In addition to the continued calls for laws and policies that offer those with disabilities the same access to information, education and employment as everyone else, there was a new push for autonomy. “Our focus must be on ability, not disability,” says Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

It marks an interesting shift, especially as so much of the thinking around disability and accessibility issues originates with the idea of overcoming obstacles.

With this new starting point, those responsible for laws and policies as well as those responsible for online and technological accessibility innovations are being encouraged to enhance what is possible, rather than compensate for what isn’t.

In her opening address, Minister of Labour, Welfare and Social Insurance Zeta Emilianidou commented that those living with a disability represent human diversity, a diversity that enriches society, not detracts from it.  While Marja Ruotanen, Director, Human Dignity and Equality for the Council of Europe made the point that the Nicosia Strategy would become a reference document for change precisely because it resets the idea that abilities are a more important focus. “Together, we can change perceptions,” she said. “Together, we can find the way on how to give every single person the opportunity to make the most out of his or her abilities.”

Ruotanen chose to quote world-class violinist Itzhak Perlman to illustrate this positive shift in focus: “One has to separate the abilities from the disabilities. The fact I cannot walk, that I need crutches or a scooter or whatever it is, has nothing to do with my playing the violin.”

The strategy outlined five areas for change: Equality and non-discrimination, awareness raising, accessibility, equal recognition before the law and freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse. The conference included thematic sessions for delegates to understand the challenges of each area of the strategy. While things won’t change overnight – after all, the strategy has a time frame of 2017-2023 –  encouraging influential figures to change their perspectives is a good starting point.

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