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Building Bridges between Refugees and People with Disabilities

Author: Vasilis Kalopisis

Every act that comes from the understanding
of interconnection and interbeing
is a spiritual act and also a political act...

Charles Eisenstein

Many people, either individually or collectively, work from different paths but with the same passion and devotion towards a world where every person is important. Sometimes, though, we realize that we are fighting in disconnected realities, in parallel bubbles that do not communicate either with each other or with the wider society. My purpose is to argue that what connects us is more than we think and that it is very important that we realize this. 

A good example supporting the above is when we take a look at the two movements that have a significant presence in recent years not only in Greece but also in the whole world: the movement fighting for the rights of refugees and the movement fighting for the rights of people with disability. 

Therefore, on one hand, we have the citizens, collectives and organizations that support the refugees, the people who from one day to the next were uprooted from their homes looking for a better future. According to the data provided by the International Rescue Committee, over the past 3 years, in Greece alone, approximately 1,300,000 refugees have come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq on their way to Western Europe. The shock to the Greek society, that suddenly had to manage this issue, was great. There were many positive and negative reactions, but a source of solidarity and a generalized mobilization to support the basic needs of refugees for food, housing and clothing, by ordinary citizens dominated, especially at the beginning.

Over the years, however, this initial boom of humanism started to fade because of fatigue, economic difficulties and the lack of organized central coordination. In addition, with the closure of the Balkan Road and the implementation of the Euro-Turkish agreement in March 2016, many of the refugees who came to Greece could no longer continue their journey to the Promised Land in the North and it is estimated that a large number of them will stay in Greece forever. The refugee issue is now entering a second phase where it is not enough to just meet their basic survival needs, but the focus should be on their smooth social inclusion. This effort cannot be based only on fragmented manifestations of solidarity. It requires consistency, synergies, coordination and longer-term targeting.

On the other hand, we have people with disability along with all those who support them to be socially included and to have a decent life like all other fellow citizens. People with disability have not come in recent years from another country or from another dimension. They have always been here, but in many cases, they were almost invisible. Through a dynamic movement, however, that has been developed in western countries in recent years and has articulated a strong demand for social inclusion, the needs and desires of people with disabilities are now heard in an ever-increasing audience. Today, the view that people with disability have the right to be treated with respect is more widespread in the world than ever before. Many negative stereotypes of the past have been broken and many institutionalizing and marginalizing practices have been abandoned. A continuously increasing number of people with disabilities acquire voice and presence.

At the same time, and in the wake of the current economic crisis in most Western countries, a new reversal is threatened and new paths to marginalization are emerging:

  • Social state cuts that indiscriminately remove resources from the most vulnerable groups
  • Modern conceptions of professional excellence that creates dividing lines between people
  • The belief that money is more important than people 

Against this background, a new model of social inclusion is slowly being created, which is not based solely on financial support from a central administration but is more participatory and it is based on the interaction between people with and without disability. More specifically, according to this model, the social inclusion of people with disability is not just the concern of the state, local government or charitable organisations; instead it is something concerns all of us. The disability rights movement is being opened up to society, promoting the notion that people with disability are not just objects that need help, instead they are people, predominantly capable of contributing positively to their communities.

The path of the disability rights’ movement is schematically depicted in the following graph:

Figure - From exclusion to inclusion

The movements fighting for social inclusion of refugees and people with disabilities certainly have many different characteristics in line with the different needs of the people they support. But they also have many common characteristics that usually escape the attention of the people involved. Raising awareness of these similarities could strengthen both efforts, help them reach a wider audience and open up opportunities for collaborations and partnerships.

Common characteristics

Common moral base: Those who are fighting for the social inclusion of refugees and people with disability start from the common moral and value basis that we are all important, that there are no superior or inferior people – we are all born different but equal and with the same rights.

Common aim: The common aim of both movements is the social inclusion of refugees and people with disability, creating an open society where everyone lives with dignity and is treated with respect. In other words, the ultimate goal is for people with disability and refugees to act and be treated as equal citizens.

It is precisely this citizen quality (citizenship) that is being reinvented and is thought to be of central importance in the concept of social inclusion, by Citizen Network. Citizen Network is a global network aiming to bring together individuals and organizations fighting from different corners for a fair and inclusive world. It is important to note that the seven key points listed below, defining the broader concept of citizenship according to Simon Duffy, one of the founders of Citizen Network, can be perfectly applied on both refugees and people with disability, but also to all socially marginalized groups.

  1. Love – to have friends, family, to give and receive love
  2. Life – to live a full life and to be able to contribute 
  3. Home –to have a place where you feel you belong 
  4. Freedom – to have control of your life 
  5. Help – to give and receive help and support 
  6. Purpose – to choose your life’s path 
  7. Money – to have enough resources to be able to live with dignity 

Common challenges: The common challenge for both movements is to reverse existing negative attitudes and persuade citizens to stop treating people with disability and refugees exclusively as a problem or a threat and to start seeing their social inclusion as an opportunity and a possibility.

If we enable people who previously lived on the margin to take on active social roles then this can have multiple benefits at an economic, social and political level:

It can expand the social and economic base for welfare and social security. It can create new production capacities, skills, stimulate employment and consumption. It can also contribute to activating and empowering civil society, cultivating perceptions and practices of solidarity, respect and social responsibility that go beyond the narrow boundaries of individuals and groups directly involved.

When people interact with people from disadvantaged groups in their everyday life, they have the opportunity to become better, more active and more conscious citizens. An employee in a cafeteria that will need to serve a intellectually disabled person would need to come out of the comfort zone of impersonal service, they may need to spend more time, or may need to use non-verbal ways of communicating. In any case, they will have the opportunity to put into practice respect for difference and enacting social responsibility. They are very likely to become better at their job regardless of the client they serve.

Even better, the citizen who will go to a cafeteria and will be served effectively by a disabled person who works there as a waiter will have a personal experience that collapses stereotypical perceptions in away that is stronger than any theoretical sensitization.

All of the above applies equally if we put a refugee in the place of the person with a disability.

Prospects

The synergies that can be developed between the movements fighting for the rights of refugees and people with disability are many and can act as models of good practice for more initiatives that support socially marginalized groups. Such synergies already exist, but they go unnoticed. For example, many people who have arrived as refugees in Greece are currently working to provide care and support for people with disabilities. Also in Myrtillo café, an excellent social cooperative enterprise in Athens, which is owned by people with disabilities, there are educational programs for refugees and immigrants.

However, much more can be done. For example, there could be joint actions to raise awareness and promote good practices. There may be an exchange of know-how on housing or occupational integration. Information materials can be created in easy-to-read language on human rights and everyday life practical - bureaucratic issues that make life difficult for refugees and people with disability.

Also, people with disability who seek and find it difficult to engage in active social roles could offer voluntary support services to refugees and immigrants. This would help them get out of the disadvantage position of a person who needs help and contribute positively to enhancing their self-image and the way others view them.
Certainly education, skills and improved living conditions for people with disability and refugees play a very important role in the process of social inclusion. But when we focus only on one dimension - trying to 'improve' people, we are limiting ourselves to a narrow way of thinking and missing opportunities for more meaningful interaction.

In fact, both these movements, in order to achieve their goals, require the creation of a new personal and social narrative based on the belief that we are all inseparably connected and that every person is important and can contribute. Every initiative that stems from this belief is a moral and political act that disrupts the dominant marginalizing culture.

Vasilis is the Coordinator of Citizen Network Greece, you can email him at: vasilis.kalopisis@citizen-network.org


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Building Bridges Between Refugees and People with Disabilities © Vasilis Kalopisis 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.