We Are The First... And The Last

by Rodolfo Cattani

The sorrowful appeal of the European Forum so that the weakest don't have to pay for the crisis.

The shadow of the world economic crisis impends threateningly on the already grim existence of persons with disabilities in Europe. Protective measures and efficient incentives are needed to prevent that those who are last to be employed be the first to be dismissed.
Prophet of doom? Certainly not. To see and understand the reality in which we live, we have always been used, as said a very special friend of mine now deceased, to "open our eyes wide even if we don't see, to prick up our ears even if we don't hear, to keep our feet firm on the ground even if we are sitting in a wheelchair, and to keep our ideas clear even if we need more time to work them out." We experience discrimination, marginalization, exclusion, unfair opportunities, obvious inequalities with others, the weight of prejudice and misunderstanding about the quality of our work and our abilities. Normality for us is the exception; to be considered is a problem for us as well as for others. We are therefore always at risk to live a life that is not like that of the others, in good or in bad, obligated to pay a higher price in order to have the same things the others have.
When society is not perturbed by dramatic events and people's life goes along relatively peacefully, persons with disabilities can experience situations of relative integration or social integration, decreasing discrimination instilling appropriate behaviour, putting forth positive actions, providing compensating resources and offering incentive to stimulate good practices. But when society is experiencing times of crisis, persons with disabilities are among the first to be affected negatively. It is not only a question of war or natural catastrophe, economical and political crisis periodically hit human societies.
In recent years, the free trade revolution has gradually transformed the economy and politics to a point where these are out of control because of an insane unsteadiness stirred up by wizard apprentices without scruples.
The wisest and most critical among us had for some time felt the danger implied by the liberalistic model, but no one had anticipated the economic world crisis that we are experiencing at the present time. The prudent or non committal declarations of politicians are not hiding the gravity of the moment. The European Disability Forum could certainly not ignore or underestimate the phenomenon, also because it now conditions noticeably the social policies of all countries and consequently those of the European Union. The growing and significant hesitations on the part of the European Commission towards adopting a more decisive position regarding standards against non-discrimination and in favour of accessibility and universal access for all,

the diminishing availability of the European Parliament in protecting the rights of citizens in regards to powerful economic interests, and the increasing opposition of state members concerning social measures are worrying symptoms of a reversal in the tendency in comparison to positions taken in the past. The period where we were participants in the Madrid Declaration, in the European Year of Persons with Disabilities, in the Ten-Year Action Plan on Disability, in the Riga Declaration which culminated with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities seems to come to an end with what seems a resigned inability to put words into action.
This is why the European Disability Forum has felt the necessity to launch a strong political message to denounce the impending danger and to give a voice to those who are most vulnerable. In the document approved at the meeting last November, the European Disability Forum takes position on the impacts the actual economic crisis could have on persons with disabilities. The Forum is asking the Council, the Commission and the Parliament of the European Union and every European institution, as well as the governments of the state members to guarantee that persons with disabilities and their families do not pay the price of this world economic crisis by seeing a reduction of their income and their compensation benefits, a reduction of work opportunities and a cut in organization funding.
The document asserts that the actual crisis was caused by irresponsible financial operations and thoughtless negligence on the part of those responsible in financial institutions and in control organizations in the world. The governments' response to the credit squeeze was to make available to financial institutions enormous financial resources to avoid their instability, but this was not enough and the generalized lack of trust keeps feeding the economic crisis of the whole system with devastating effects for people in conditions of poverty, seniors and persons with disabilities and their families. The document states that

[translation] "We, who even before the crisis, were experiencing a precarious economic situation are asking for an approach aimed at stimulating the economy, increasing investments in accessible infrastructures, compensatory indemnities and tax reductions in order to allow these groups of citizens to acquire goods and services and to improve their economic situation. With the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the urgent necessity to extend judicial guaranties also to these people was universally recognized. Society cannot afford to fail in its obligations towards the protection of all human rights among which the right to work and the respect of family life."

Picture - European flag

Picture - Logo indicating a parking space reserved for persons with disabilities

Picture  - Sign indicating a parking space reserved for persons with disabilities

Traditionally, persons with disabilities are considered as a backup workforce, the last people to be hired, and the first ones to lose their jobs, considered only as a cost during an economic crisis.
Persons with disabilities and their families, the unemployed and those living in poverty, asserted the Forum, cannot be the scapegoat of a crisis over which they have no responsability. In some countries, like Ireland, Hungary, Sweden and Italy, the worsening of the economic situation is already creating attempts to reducing social benefits.
"The lesson we must learn from this crisis is that the value of the investment in human resources is much more important than speculative investments and is to the advantage of the whole society, reinforcing its capacity in reacting to changes brought upon by the crisis.
If the gap between people in a difficult situation and those who are well-off is deepened, the costs to society will last even longer." The European Disability Forum wants that equality and equal rights for persons with disabilities be the priority in the policy agenda of the European elections.
The policy of massive cuts and unemployment undermines the trust citizens have in European institutions, reviving appeased particularism and nationalism and risks of developing a fertile ground for violence and crimes stemming from resentment in regards to these citizens, denying solidarity and encouraging attitudes that can endanger democracy.
The Forum is therefore appealing to those who have the decisional and economic power that they do their utmost to guaranty that persons with disabilities and those living in poverty be treated with equality and that they be assured to live in dignity with appropriate measures.
"Today, the document ends, is the time for strong actions, so that the European Year for the fight against poverty in 2010 maintain, in all planned actions, its objective of centrality for people who are most vulnerable, among which persons with disabilities and their families."