The day began with a storm, the likes of | which not many in the southern part of A Greece had ever seen. The torrential winds howled through the majestic ancient pillars of the Acropolis, and in the city of Athens below another fierce wind was howling in the new Megaron Concert Hall. This wind was a little different in its fury, maybe more determined, more deliberate, this was a wind for change. This powerful force had been building for years culminating and releasing its energy on that day. The day was January 26, 2003 and the start of the European Year of People with Disabilities (EYPD); the most aggressive political drive for people with disabilities in the history of Europe.
At the EYPD opening ceremony, European leaders called on the European Union member states to make the existing rights in legislation a reality in the day-to-day lives of those who have disabilities. “Member states are not doing enough to give the 37 million people with dis abilities in Europe equal rights with people who do not have disabilities, ” said European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Anna Diamantopoulou. The commissioner stated that these “invisible citizens ” should have the same rights to “access ” (access to a job, access to buildings and access to the internet) as citizens who do not have dis abilities.
Diamantopoulou serves as a great support to this cause. “I was very excited that this was not just another thing on her to-do list,” said Vice President of HP Marketing and Strategy, Kyle Ranson. “This is clearly what she cares passionately about, and is personally motivated to drive, which gave me a high degree of excitement.”
HP is one in nine companies who have joined EYPD to be corporate participants. The other companies include Accor, Adecco, IBM, Manpower, Schindler, Sony, UITP and Volkswagen. “We’re also very excited that Commissioner Diamantopoulou is rallying the corporate troops and the government troops to be good corporate citizens and do the right thing,” added Ranson.
The opening ceremony was organized by the Greek Ministry of Health and Welfare and the European Commission, in cooperation with the European Disability Forum and the National Confederation of Disabled People of Greece. Guests were blown away with art and music that filled the Megaron Concert Hall. Beginning with a performance by the Children’s Dance Group, participants enjoyed hours of musical and theatrical performances as well as an art exhibition. The event attracted many influential and prominent people of Europe, including the President of Greece, Constantinos Stefanopoulos. Most of the event planners, performers and speakers involved had some form of disability and are all advocates for those with disabilities.
The event evoked a great deal of emotion for Ranson after a lady walked on stage and performed a song in sign language. “It touched me so much and it wasn’t part of the program,” said Ranson. “That’s what was so beautiful about it. She’s in a program for the deaf and she did it spontaneously. It was spectacular.”
In addition to the emotional performance, presenters were radio personality and journalist Nikos Limberopoulos and actress Julie Fernandez. Fernandez, who stars in BBC2’s television award-winning series The Office, uses a wheelchair and is a strong defender of the rights of those with disabilities. Fernandez voices her concerns in her regular column in The Sunday Express titled The View from Here, where she writes of her day-to-day activities. Fernandez believes that people who have disabilities are mistreated daily and encourages advocates to become a ‘nuisance’ to change this reality. “If you don’t make your views known, things will not change,” Fernandez stated. Among the musicians present was Gilbert Montagne, a successful French musician who is blind. His thirty year career has led him through Europe and Northern America and finds him in line to play the role of Simon in France’s upcoming version of American Idol. Montagne also wrote and dedicated a song to the European Year titled, Ensemble.
Although the storm has passed and the event is over, the initiative moves on. With one in ten Europeans having been identified with some form of disability, EYPD will meet the needs of the individuals within their communities through festivals, debates, partnerships, marches, parties and lobbying efforts throughout Europe.
“We want European Year 2003 to come from the grassroots, rooted in localities where people with disabilities live,” said Diamantopoulou. “Our aim is not just to make a difference for people who have disabilities, our aim is to make a difference with people who have disabilities.”
To involve citizens with disabilities or anyone interested in participating in the Year, EYPD developed a mobile campaign headquarters called the People’s March. The People’s March will campaign throughout the streets of Europe in the EYPD-mobile vehicle. Colorfully decorated with children’s art. the EYPD-mobile is fully equipped with the latest technology and accessible to all. The vehicle will wind through the 15 member states of the European Union for one year, raising awareness ofthose with disabilities and will serve as a drop-in center for anyone interested. According to Ranson, the vehicle is packed with technology for people who have disabilities, including assistive technology for the deaf and the blind. “The basic concept is to educate the general public to some of the challenges that people with disabilities face, and then support them with the technologies that are available,” said Ranson.
The EYPD-mobile carries campaign participants with disabilities along with their family and friends who will provide visitors information on the program and how to get involved. With the motto “Get on Board!” painted on the vehicle, union citizens are encouraged to find out when the EYPD-mobile will be in their country and organize an event to join the march. The vehicle has already traveled through Greece and will continue traveling through the member states ending the trip in Italy in December.
Corporate participation plans will create awareness and support for the EYPD through companies’ internal and external communication channels. EYPD will also initiate long-term commitment of companies to disability issues including: promoting employment and training opportunities for people with disabilities, and developing designed-for-all products and services to improve accessibility to assistive technologies.
Just as the organization considers voluntary citizen involvement an important contribution to the aim of EYPD, it also looks for companies to voluntarily participate by integrating people with disabilities. Companies play an important role in society as providers of products, services, employment, mobility, and social contact.
Plans for companies that are not apt to volunteer are also in the works. New legislation, adopted by the European Union, to outlaw all forms of discrimination in the workplace will be implemented by the end of the year, according to Commissioner Diamantopoulou. The legislation will further require all work environments to provide “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities.
The European commission will also support global efforts to improve equality. With over 600 million people who have disabilities in the world, the European Union plans to push for a United Nations’ legal instrument that will set standards for world-wide governmental conduct to which all countries would instill effective equal rights for people with disabilities.
There are those who have voiced concern over the resources spent on the opening ceremony, believing there may not be real action to follow the event. One can only hope the initiative that came by storm will last through the year and beyond, and improvement will become a reality in the lives of those who have disabilities. That this shift in weather will produce a change in climate; a new climate of civil and equal rights for all people.
For more information on EYPD and how to get involved log onto www.eypd2003.org