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Seeking to Understand the Experience of People with Disabilities in Europe

Posted on March 12, 2020

My hope for coming to Spain was not only gain a new perspective on life, but to dive deeper into my passion of disability awareness and activism. After spending the first 20 years of my life surrounded in an inclusive community in the states, I wanted to see how other countries approached inclusive practices and hopefully take back with me a new awareness and understanding of how to best serve our community members who have different abilities.


My first couple weeks here I struggled to identify the culture and views surrounding the community members who have disabilities. The city of Alicante especially seemed incredibly supportive of individuals who were blind or who encountered a variety of visual conditions. The bus stops and shops included accessible ways of navigating around the city is a safe and secure way. On the contrary, while I was on tours throughout the cities, I felt a lack of accessibility and inclusive design practices in the architecture that would allow for individuals of all abilities to enjoy these beautiful cities and monuments.

Overall, I felt that the European Union was incredibly supportive of community members who have disabilities, but after looking into the European Union Disability Union, I found something shocking. The first headline I saw read, “Tragic Fire in Czechia: Segregating Persons with Disabilities Has To End”. I was immediately concerned so I decided to read on. The article discussed a recent tragic fire that killed 8 innocent lives within one of Europe's large scale residential institutions. To provide some background, residential institutions are large scale facilities that promote the segregation and mistreatment of people with disabilities through providing minimal basic care needs along with forcing people to live in unlivable conditions. Oftentimes individuals within these systems are treated as burdens, not as people. I continued my research to find that the practice of institutionalizing people with disabilities is still legal in the European Union and today contains over 1 million people who have a variety of disabilities. To gain a global perspective, the United States deinstitutionalized people with disabilities in 1967, which was over 40 years ago. The article ended with a letter from Yannis Vardakastanis, the President of the European Disability Forum. She stated, “There is a humanitarian need, there is a human-rights need to close all residential institutions. No European funding should be used to renovate or build segregating institutions. The EU should invest in the building up of adequate person-centered support for all persons with disabilities” (Vardakastanis). This is clearly a pertinent issue impacting the EU today that needs to be resolved.

Going forward with my studies in Spain, I hope to pivot my focus by emphasizing advocacy for people with disabilities within the European Union. Through sharing my global perspective and joining in the conversation, I hope to bring us one step closer to reaching a more inclusive and welcoming community for people who have disabilities.

Author: Kaleb Cook

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