On 2 December, the European Economic and Social Committee hosted a debate with Irish disability advocate and writer Sinéad Burke at its plenary session dedicated to the empowerment of persons with disabilities and their inclusion in all spheres of economic, social and political life in the EU and beyond.
Held on the eve of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the debate was marked by an inspiring and very personal speech delivered by Ms Burke.
"I ask you to work with disabled people, not for them, to transform the landscape. I am so grateful that you are facilitating this conversation and instigating this debate. But this cannot just be a moment. It is a movement that I invite you to join," Ms Burke told the EESC plenary session where she addressed the EU institutions for the first time.
She has just received a literary award for her first book, Break the Mould, which encourages children to acknowledge differences and be proud of who they are, just as they are. She is also the first little person to feature on the cover of Vogue and to attend the Met Gala. Through her company, Tilting the Lens, she works towards accelerating systemic change in the perception and treatment of persons with disabilities in the fields of education and design.
Ms Burke was welcomed by the EESC president, Christa Schweng, who spoke about the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), a breakthrough international treaty which changed the way we perceive disability.
"Unfortunately, the situation is still difficult and further measures are needed," said Ms Schweng.
The speakers in the debate stressed the importance of inclusive education and employment, accessible workplaces and the use of language, which should make persons with disabilities feel safe and comfortable. Involving these people in all decisions that directly affect them is also paramount.
The debate shone a spotlight on the devastating effect of the pandemic on people with disabilities.
"The EU Disability Strategy for the next decade can only be efficient if it considers the consequences of the pandemic and influences Member States' policies and expenditure," warned the head of the EESC's Thematic Group on Disability Rights, Pietro Vittorio Barbieri.
Ioannis Vardakastanis, EESC member and president of the European Disability Forum, said that instead of being protected and prioritised, people with disabilities had been neglected by decision makers.
"The health situation and lives of persons with disabilities matter too," he stressed. (ll)