|Opening speech on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Freedom Drive - Vibeke Marøy Melstrøm, President of ENIL.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a particularly great honour and pleasure for me to welcome you all to the tenth anniversary of the Strasbourg Freedom Drive and the Strasbourg Freedom Drive conference.
During the course of these ten years, the Freedom Drive to the European Parliament has become a big event for all supporters of the Independent Living movement. This is because disabled people from all over Europe stand proud and visible in the streets of Strasbourg and let our voices be heard. Our voices are important in a world where strong forces are still at work to keep disabled people as invisible as possible.
The Independent Living movement is for everyone. For the young, the old and for children, for women and men, regardless of what functional impairments we have. This makes the Independent Living movement big and necessary. During this conference we will highlight many interesting topics, all of importance for the movement and the fight for equality.
Ten years as freedom fighters is a very short period in the historical context, but it can nevertheless seem like a long time in our constant struggle for equality, inclusion and equal opportunities in society.
Our legitimate fight to be seen, heard and included in society must be fought as fiercely and intensely as before, in relation to our opportunities for education and work, our rights and obligations as citizens and our right to control our own lives.
Unfortunately, the way in which the world and our surroundings view us disabled people does not seem to be changing as quickly as we would like. Changing society's understanding of disabled people as real citizens with resources that we can contribute to the community demands the utmost of each and every one of us. It is therefore especially satisfying and important that we all have this opportunity to gather here. It is important in order to give each other inspiration and ideas about how to continue the fight, and to share our experience of disabled people's situation in different countries.
Meeting here in Strasbourg is also an important opportunity to meet the members of the European Parliament who decide the framework conditions under which we live. The possibility to meet politicians in positions of power is a key element of the Freedom Drive. Politicians who exercise power also have the power to change society, and we must ensure that they change it to all our benefit.
The Strasbourg Freedom Drive is also important to each and every one of us as a chance to feel a sense of community, to feel that we are not alone. The feeling of belonging to a wider community through the Independent Living movement gives us the energy we need to continue the fight in our home countries.
Today, many European countries are facing unusually great challenges as a result of the economic downturn. In some countries, the situation is so serious that it must be called a full-blown economic crisis. This entails an imminent danger as countries are cutting services for disabled people, because we are seen exclusively as an expense item in the national budget. We must therefore continue to fight to achieve a political understanding that we are equal citizens, that we can make a positive contribution to the economy through education and employment, if society takes the necessary steps to facilitate this. It will be a tougher struggle in a Europe experiencing economic downturn and high unemployment rates. During periods of economic downturn, politicians tend to have a one-sided focus on budget cuts, and welfare services are often where cuts are made first and fastest. It goes without saying that, combined with old-fashioned prejudice against disabled people, this means that we must continue to fight as fiercely as ever before.
I come from Norway, a country that has so far avoided the economic downturn experienced by many European countries. Norwegian politicians like to portray Norway as a modern, democratic nation with equality and equal opportunities for all. But not even in as prosperous a country as Norway does this apply to us disabled people. Before Easter, the Norwegian Government presented a bill that will entitle disabled people to user-controlled personal assistance. We all believed that we had reason to rejoice after many years of campaigning for the right to user-controlled personal assistance to be enshrined in law, but unfortunately, the bill is so poor that it will actually put back the situation of disabled Norwegians by several decades by offering us poorer welfare services than we have in Norway at present. Costs are used as an argument in this case too, in a country that, so far at least, is still envied by many other countries for its prosperity. In other words, we must continue to fight as fiercely as ever for inclusion and equality in society, also in Norway.
During the important and event-packed days ahead of us here in Strasbourg, we will discuss the future of Independent Living. We will discuss how to support people with cognitive impairments to enable them to live as they themselves wish, and we will discuss our movement in relation to its roots. Disabled people and politics and the consequences we face when welfare cuts are made are also high up on the agenda.
It goes without saying that we will debate how we can renew our movement and gear it for the future. And renewal is particularly important in light of the challenges Europe is currently facing.
I hereby wish you all an enjoyable and rewarding few days, and declare this conference and also Freedom Drive open.