Rodolfo Cattani
Interview with Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum

European Disability Forum

Yannis Vardakastanis, an energetic and friendly man of 45, was born on the Greek island of Zante. He holds a degree in Economy from an American university; he is the President of the Greek Confederation of Persons with Disabilities, a member of the Executive Council of the European Blind Union, and was elected President of the European Disability Forum in 1998. He has since then been dedicated with great passion and sensibility to reinforce the European movement of persons with disability, succeeding in making the Forum the main voice of the European Union in terms of disability issues. This interview was conducted in Geneva on October 25, 2003, on the occasion of the Forum's Executive Committee meeting, within the semester of the Italian Presidency of the European Union.

Q: What motivated you to become involved in the European Disability Forum?

A: My commitment in the disability movement in Greece, where I was elected President of the Confederation in 1993, lead me to deal at the European level and provided me with the opportunity to participate in the Disability Forum within the framework of the Helios Programme, the first European programme for the social integration of persons with disabilities. I was convinced of the necessity to create an independent organization to represent the interests of persons with disabilities within the European Union, and I have participated in the drawing up of the first statute of the independent Forum, which was founded in 1996. Moreover, I have always been a convinced supporter of the necessity to have in Europe an umbrella organization capable of bringing together the various associations of persons with disabilities, just like the European Confederation of Unions brings together every European union organization. Thanks to the common effort of so many advocates supporting the idea, at the national and European levels, we have succeeded in making this movement of persons with disabilities in Europe a common voice, which is strong and is listened to.

Q: The Forum has designed and proposed a plan to celebrate the European Year of Persons with Disabilities, even if there had been little success with similar initiatives in the past. What were the objectives?

A: The Forum's General Assembly has decided in 1999 to propose to the European Commission that 2003 become the European Year of Persons with Disabilities with the slogan Visibility of Disability Everywhere. As everyone knows, there are areas within the European Union where a lot of attention is given to disability, and others where it is neglected. The history, the culture and the traditions regarding disability are quite different, and we have realized that there is still a need to develop a European idea, or culture, if I may say, of disability. We have thought that the European Year would encourage the creation of that idea at the national and European levels, and that the Year would have allowed all European and national organizations to develop information and awareness activities, and to implement a common strategy based on the principles and proposals established by the Declaration of Madrid, adopted in March 2002, on the occasion of the European Conference on Disability. Now, two months from the end of the European Year, we have to accept that we have not succeeded in reaching our main objective, that is the promulgation of a European policy against discrimination of persons with disabilities, above all because of the unfavourable political climate at the community or national levels. But, the European Year has certainly brought to the attention of the public, the media, and of decision-making organizations issues relating to disability, in a new perspective, and based on human, as well as civic, social, economic and political rights. That is important in the Europe of today, characterized by important changes, among which are, firstly, the adherence of new State Members, the adoption of a first true European Constitution, the following institutional reorganization, and, lastly but not least, economic and social policies.

Q: What can persons with disabilities expect from the decisions of the Intergovernment Conference on the European Constitution?

A: From the new European Constitution, we expect the defence of our rights and provision of the legal basis for the adoption of legal initiatives, and concrete measures for our true insertion into the social fabric of our life environment. We are convinced that legislation against all forms of discrimination and positive action are the pillars on which to found advanced policies on issues relating to disability. We want the principles to be carried out in concrete realizations, which will positively influence the life of disabled citizens and their families.

Q: In this regard, what will be the impact of the policy on equal treatment in employment and work conditions, issued by the Union in 2000, and in the process of being adopted by State Members? Will it give a boost to professional training and employment of persons with disabilities?

A: First, the adoption of this policy represents an important step forward because it is an example of European legislation against discrimination even if it is in a specific and limited sector. We still think that it is not sufficient because access to employment is not conditioned only by direct or indirect discrimination to which are subject persons with disabilities in working situations, but also by other forms of discrimination in the educational field, professional training, social services, transportation, etc. These are sectors where the Policy on Employment has no effect. However, the policy, once it is adopted by the legislation of each country, will be an excellent tool for organizations of persons with disabilities to promote their rights in the work sector (training, employment, career development), or to extend the legislation against discrimination in other spheres of life.

Q: The European Forum puts a lot of emphasis on non discrimination and equal opportunity issues, but does not omit to face concrete issues, above all in the sector of accessibility to goods and services, essential questions for the independence and autonomy of persons with disabilities.

A: Certainly. Even regarding the Policy on Employment, the Forum has insisted a lot on the introduction of the concept of positive action, in the difficult times in which we live, times of economic crisis and political uncertainty, we have to make sure that our initiatives have a real impact on the life of people, as for example, the tax exemption on prosthetic and technical aids, and even on motor vehicles, like in certain countries. Non discrimination and positive action cannot be suppressed, but on the contrary are to be adapted in a serious policy of social inclusion.

Q: It seems to me that the Madrid Declaration, often mentioned, can be considered like the ideal framework of the European Year, a detailed and well-thought programme document, the basic demands of persons with disabilities in Europe.

A: The Madrid Declaration can be considered like a document of historical significance, which has had a fundamental importance on reaching the objective of the European Year. It can constitute the basis of the planning of future work, but the disability movement must also know how to be sufficiently flexible to adapt to the tumultuous changes of our times. We have to give life to historical documents and a historical document is alive if it is used in a vital manner. This is how I consider today the Madrid Declaration, above all, the fundamentals for change. One of its obvious limits is that it does not look at inherent issues relating to the enlargement of the Union, which will provide considerable diversity within the disability movement in Europe. The principles of the Madrid Declaration will have to be used to create specific support programmes for the countries of Central Europe, but not exclusively for them.

Q: Greece is a small country of 10 million people. During the European Year, Greece has taken the role of an important protagonist. How do you explain this exceptional commitment?

A: It has been for Greece an important event to host the opening ceremonies of the European Year, as it will be an event for Rome to host the closing ceremonies. The European Year has crossed all Europe, but it goes from Athens to Rome and that is a historical symbology.
For Greece, the opening ceremonies have been very important within the semester of the European Presidency, which has certainly been one of the best, at least in regards to the attention given to persons with disabilities. There have been important European conferences on inclusion in the field of information and communication technologies, on youth, on the role of disability in the media, on social cohesion, sports, and on introducing the subject of disability in conferences relating to general issues. All in all, it has been a great success, also thanks to the enormous preparatory work that had begun quite ahead of time.

Q: What will remain of the European Year?

A: What we will decide to build on the solid working bases created this year. That is the new challenge awaiting us.


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