Jean Antoine-Dunne writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
In 1992, the United Nations proclaimed December 3 as International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Much has changed over the past 25 years. Today my daughter Eileen will attend a UN conference in Brussels in celebration of the day. Eileen will attend as a young woman with Down syndrome and listen to debates on issues of inclusion and in particular her right as a citizen to participate in society and to vote.
The theme of this year’s European conference is citizenship and Eileen with others will discuss her right of access to everything citizenship implies. The first question that will be asked over the next three days is how can people with disabilities be better informed of their rights and how can they make their voices heard.
These are vital issues today, despite the fact that in the 38 years since Eileen was born perceptions have been radically transformed. People with disabilities and including people with intellectual disabilities are no longer silent or silenced, nor do they allow others to speak for them. It is noteworthy that the motto of the European Disability Forum, which integrates disability groups across Europe, is, “Nothing about us without us.” Nothing can be clearer than that.
This Tuesday, Eileen will participate in a forum titled, “Hear our Voices.” On Wednesday, she will attend the fourth sitting of the European Parliament of Persons with Disabilities (EPPD). The president of the European Parliament will open the sitting, and members such as the president of the European and Economic Social Committee and the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour and the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management will attend.
The EPPD provides citizens with disabilities the opportunity to actively lobby leaders across Europe. It is a unique event which shows the European Parliament’s support for people with disabilities and the importance of the dialogue between European citizens with disabilities and their Members of the European Parliament.
Sustainability is a key issue to be discussed and Sustainable Development Goals will be on the agenda. There is also a special award for the most accessible city in Europe and the winner will be announced on Tuesday. This award recognises the work that cities have done to make their place more inclusive and accessible for those with varying disabilities.
Nonetheless, there seems a strange gap or even disjunction between these discussions that will occur between December 4 and 6 and current debates across Europe on the right to exist for those who have conditions such as Down syndrome.
I listened during the past week to a debate in Ireland about the introduction of legislation that will give mothers the right to abort “abnormal” foetuses. One question from the floor addressed to a medical expert was direct. Would a foetus with Down syndrome be sufficient cause for abortion? And the answer was swift and without hesitation: “Yes.”
Therefore, it is possible that in the not too distant future young people like my daughter simply will not be here. But for the moment, she is; and today she and other people with disabilities harness an increasing power to agitate for their rights. They do so in part because of the support that fuels their confidence to speak out.
I eagerly await the day when people with disabilities in the Caribbean together with other activists and parliamentarians can come together to convene an event similar to the one happening today in Brussels.
In the meantime, I celebrate my daughter who with her colleagues will speak with assertiveness to participants on her right not only to life, but to a life.