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Disability doesn’t exist? Four things to do right away.jpg

Disability doesn’t exist? Four things to do right away

Laura Coccia
athlete and women rights activist

Disability in the singular doesn’t exist. There are differently abled people whose abilities can all be developed with the right tools. Now, that would be the ideal situation, that each of us, in a large or small way, is working on every day.

Still, to be able to do that there’s a lot yet to do and on different levels: we must act culturally by supporting families and those in contact with them who live nearby (yes, sometimes it’s not just a matter of money, but also cultural and psychological support), we need to dismantle certain empty stereotypes of beauty with “standard features”, we would need to ensure accessibility to education and involvement in it (and thereafter in work) and make real and widespread the opportunity to bet, in a manner of speaking, on each one’s abilities, possibly taking advantage of advanced technological aids or prostheses without being treated like aliens.

But let’s go through this in order, starting with the families. The support needed does not just involve education or income level, at least not only these aspects. You have to look at what capacity for resilience there is in accepting the diagnosis that bursts inside the unit, altering its equilibrium.

Many people with disabilities have difficulty leaving home because they feel oppressed by the social stigma that starts from being stared at to the presence of physical and cultural barriers

Every parent nurtures dreams for their children. Parents of differently abled boys and girls must balance those dreams while they pass through the various steps: from searching for a Medical Centre for rehabilitation and assistance, to the first battles against the senseless bureaucracy, and finally having to learn to resist the temptation to hide to protect those children. At this stage the families need articulated support: a strong network for psychological support and constant information that helps let them know their rights and claim them through the existing instruments.

Then there’s the second factor. Today, the society that moves rapidly on TV screens and Smartphones doesn’t help in dealing with disability and differences, because it imposes stereotyped images of women and men almost always based on physical prowess and efficiency, which prevents even the very possibility of imagining that there is a way to be “other”. Social media and the mainstream media have tried to launch new positive models – I am thinking, for example, of athletes competing at the Paralympics. However, this attempt is not enough to affirm – in the age of likes – a strong and consolidated alternative model, especially for young people. Disability must be seen and understood and the world must find a way to include it, giving everyone equal opportunity.

Many people with disabilities have difficulty leaving home because they feel oppressed by the social stigma that starts from being stared at to the presence of physical and cultural barriers that make even the most simple, everyday actions extremely complex, to the point of pushing many to give up and withdraw. An inclusive society must therefore be built that will break down the architectonic and sensory barriers not only in the standard fashion because the law requires it (thus using accessible toilets for storage) but because we understand that every obstacle, especially if unexpected or unpredictable, is a limitation of personal freedom for the differently abled.

Third step: creating a European accessibility brand to help identify the level of usability for a service or place, then providing apps on the web and online maps indicating the more accessible locations, with particular attention to places for socialising and daily living including places like cafes or nightclubs and everyday services, to provide the opportunity to make choices and optimal organisation to facilitate achieving the highest level of personal autonomy. Some projects have already started at the local level, but they need to be supported and encouraged with special public tenders and funding so that they become accessible to everyone.

This means focussing on the individuals and not their disability, on their real capabilities and potential. Finally, because this change presents a real possibility to be achieved, a system will have to be organised that offers everyone the opportunity to know and use more advanced tools and technologies. Once again, the key and essential word is “access”, whether it involves an artificial limb, electronic aid, or an app that helps in everyday living. Equal opportunity today means supporting and investing in technological development, but above all, making it available to everyone, without discrimination of any kind, least of all economic.

The path to gaining access to full citizenship with equal opportunity is still lengthy, but we must all travel it together, without exception.

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