Inclusion Fusion: Letter from Strasbourg

Jack WelchAuthor Jack WelchDate 27 Jun 2017

It is an ideal more or less accepted in the theory of disability rights: by ensuring that people’s attitudes towards disabled people are ones that understand and are prepared to accommodate their needs, we take a step closer to full inclusion. In my mind, though, there is a question about achieving inclusion that is often ignored: are we sometimes better at developing theory and principle than we are at putting the ideals of inclusion into practice?

The attendees at ENIL and ESN pose for a photo.

I was fortunate to see some of these aspirations put into action at a special study session co-hosted by the European Network for Independent Living (ENIL) and the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) in Strasbourg recently. In the course of a week, the session assembled a selection of disabled and non-disabled people from Council of Europe states to put inclusion under the spotlight. Unsurprisingly, one of the main concerns at the start from people who had no diagnosed disability or condition was saying something or acting in a way that offends a disabled person (something that Scope’s End the Awkward research had previously uncovered).

What became clear during the days that followed was that being more transparent and honest in conversation was the best way to challenge our thinking, and to create genuine inclusion people need to be aware and informed about the needs of disabled people. How could an individual’s access needs be known without asking in the first place? An example activity which I remember, using our feet to move into an agree/disagree space, was whether segregated groups for disabled people were correct. While in the scope of an inclusive framework this might seem wrong - and I was in the minority in this - having had experience within Young CDC and as a Youth Patron for Ambitious about Autism, I believe it is still essential that people who live with conditions have a shared environment where you do not have to always explain the way you are. This can still be easily reconciled with the belief that having a diverse group is also desirable and achievable. The sad truth is that inclusion is not yet fully realised in our society; and that I and many other young disabled people still need that provision to feel part of a wider community.

The blackboard shows the young people's ideas from the day.When embedding inclusion, attitudes are not the only concern. The physical structure of buildings could prove a sticking point, with the session venue itself, the European Youth Centre, undergoing improvements to become fully accessible. The barriers present themselves in many forms; not least how society in the UK and abroad typically upholds the medical model of disability. During the session, we discussed these theories, and how they impact on our experiences of aspects of life that most people take for granted. An example comes within our education system, where broad research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that young disabled people aged 16-18 were more than twice as likely to face unemployment after leaving secondary school than non-disabled students. There is still work to be done on the ground to reduce these inequalities; whilst the will is there to make this happen, we are some way off from the destination.

After taking part in the study session, I left with hope that although having a more inclusive world is still some distance away, the people I formed friendships with wanted inclusion as part of something we could all support in small and gradual steps. As was emphasised at various points, inclusion is a constant process and not just an end goal. The session was also memorable for the joy of meeting young people from all over Europe, from sampling the food and drink from participant countries to just learning more about the world around us. I believe this was one kind of inclusion that could be replicated again in future sessions.

A 24-year-old graduate in English and Creative Writing, Jack is an ambassador, Trustee and advocate for many youth and disability organisations, working for greater inclusivity and voice for people with learning disabilities in society. Jack has been both a member of Young NCB and has worked with the Council for Disabled Children in a number of capacities since 2015; he is passionate about volunteering and social action. His interests beyond social action include current affairs and politics, reading and travelling for relaxation.