parapympics. foto by audi nissen

Disability: What Do We Know?

Little do we know about disability rights. Little do we engage in disabled people’s fates. Have you ever thought about how accessible your workplace is? Or how tolerant? Do you have any colleagues with special needs? Have you ever thought about disabled people’s rights?

I don’t blame you. But, I encourage you to learn more. The reason? We will all, sooner or later, struggle with some form for physical limitations that will put constraints to our lives. Whether it is getting old, injured or sick from the way we live.

After the viewing of the film, We Could be Heroes [Hind Bensari] shown during the Swedish Human Rights Film Festival – that narrates the struggles of outcasts longing to conquer the extraordinary in order to finally have the same rights and opportunities as ordinary men at home, in Morocco.

It tells of a beautiful friendship between two men and the power of a “warm and caring attitude within a disability rights group, combined with the commitment to mutually support each other irrespective of personal cost. It can give activists the strength and optimism needed to carry on their work under adverse circumstances. This points to the fundamental role of solidarity, human relations, and a coherent vision for the longer term.” (Helen Avery)

Over one fifth of the Swedes have some form for disability

Anna Landeborg, moderator and project manager Social Innovation Summit, frames the panel discussion by providing a few interesting notions:

“Disability could be many things, but entails a reduction of a person’s physical, mental or intellectual capacity. Disability is something you HAVE, not that you ARE.”

She adds: “Over a billion people, about 15% of the world’s population, is considered to have some form for disability” (WHO, World Health Organisation).

And, as mentioned, the number is increasing. Due to us getting older and older, getting chronic health conditions and so on.

In Sweden, about 22%, over two million people, have a disability. (The Public Health Agency of Sweden)

Fatmir Seremeti and Helen Avery participated in our discussion on disability rights after the viewing of We could be heroes:

Fatmir Seremeti is a professional goal ball player on top level in Sweden and in the world. As a national team player he has represented Sweden in seven European Championships with three bronze medals. He has participated in three world championships and won one gold. He has fought his way through three Paralympic championships with one bronze. Fatmir is a role model for many; inspirer, speaker, accessibility consultant, author, entrepreneur.

Helen Avery is a researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies Lund University. Her current work evolves around sustainable society-building; including among other things, disability rights. She also performs research concentrated on protection in situations of armed conflict, as well as longer-term issues in post-conflict contexts.

The film takes place in Morocco. The conditions for the friends aiming for the Paralympics in Rio are tough. Under similar circumstances, what would the situation be in Sweden? Fatmir and Helen helped us shed some light on this:

“The main difference I see between Morocco and Sweden, is not in terms of disability rights – which are not respected in either country – but in the fact that Morocco has a much higher rate of unemployment and youth unemployment. Its pension system only covers part of the population. Buildings in Sweden are in a better state of repair”, says Helen. “These differences actually place Sweden in a worse point of departure.”

How?

“In Morocco, most people can relate to the situation of struggling for resources, livelihoods and basic rights; the issues are highly visible and can be debated – despite restrictions on freedom of speech hinted at in the documentary.”

Used to struggling 

Not that that makes their life any easier. But, what about us, Swedes, who have so much? How well do we make use of the resources we have?

“By contrast, in Sweden, people who do not belong to the enabled class of “productive” employed citizens are hidden away,” Helen says. “This way, a public debate becomes difficult. Also, the social insurance system is complex, but essentially tied to full (paid) employment.”

Fatmir agrees: “On paper, Sweden may look good. But, in practice, we are not so great”. Fatmir provides examples and reveals a lot about the struggles he has had; in terms of getting respected, getting paid, getting opportunities, getting the support he is entitled to.

He says:

“I wish society and people would stop “helping” me. Instead, give me the keys and the tools to make me take care of myself.”

“The well-kept facades of Swedish buildings reflects, on the one hand, a rigid system of standards, with strict categories and cut-off points, excluding anything and anyone outside these formal criteria. On the other hand, the Swedish system shapes a general culture of caring for superficial appearances, rather than actual content or human values, and where there is no tolerance for the “less-than-perfect” in any domain of life”, Helen says.

Swedish Values: Do we care about people? Or just surfaces and appearances?

Sweden signed the new UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities* in March 2007.

Through this convention, Sweden promises to make sure that all persons – with all types of disabilities – must get to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced.

Despite the fact that we’ve signed this, it becomes apparent that Sweden does not deliver.

Infringements happen on a regular basis. As an example, municipalities may sometimes randomly decide on any accommodation for people with disabilities.

“All of a sudden, the form of accommodation can change, despite the fact that you have the right to choose your own city of residence”.

Sweden – one of the most equal countries?

I believe that if we want to make real change happen and move from conventions and theory, into practice, more people with disabilities will need to be in decision-making positions.” Fatmir underlines. “Have you noticed that people in power are people without disabilities?”

This is also the case in the film that we saw. The Paralympics are surrounded by people with power, but without disabilities.

“I believe that we need a discussion on conditions for rights activism in general, and disability rights in particular, to jointly find ways to work in a global climate that is rapidly getting harsher.” Helen says. “How do we work for international solidarity at a time when far-right agendas are dominating public debates? How do restrictions on academic freedom affect researchers’ ability to contribute to reversing the trends? How can we get the structural questions back on the table? Above all, how can real collaboration across movements be achieved at a time when thousands of “micro-causes” are each competing for a shrinking pool of funding, and a shortening span of public attention?”

There are still many questions left to answer. But like the unremitting fighters in We Could Be Heroes, we must never stop fighting.

“It will work, if you work it.”

*My colleague, @Dr. Anna Bruce is a senior researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute participated in the negotiations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on behalf of the Swedish Disability Ombudsman. She teaches at Masters and Ph.D. level at Lund University and is a Disability Rights expert.

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