Disabled people's living conditions continue to be associated with marginalisation, exploitation and exclusion. Contemporary evidence shows that disability rights depends upon the current economic and political objectives of those with considerable power; activists, disabled people's organisations and their allies, demonstrate the necessity to frame disability as a social justice issue. To improve the situation, parliamentarians and policymakers must ensure disabled people are presented with opportunities to highlight key issues and demands. This requires participating, raising awareness and building on the outcomes of events such as the European Network on Independent Living Freedom Drive.
This report outlines the work carried out by the European Network on Independent Living, with particular reference to the recent 2017 Freedom Drive. It provides an overview of the programme, which includes highlighting the key demands and topics discussed over the four day event.
Finally, the Freedom Drive was an opportunity for a meeting between Julie Ward MEP and Miro Griffiths, a researcher and activist on disability rights; the discussion explored the need to promote the philosophy of Independent Living, as well as provide accessible routes for disabled people to be represented at the local, national and international political level. This is explored further in the report.
What is the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL)?
ENIL is a Europe-wide network of disabled people, with members throughout Europe. ENIL is a forum for all disabled people, Independent Living organisations and their non-disabled allies on the issues of Independent Living. ENIL represents the disability movement for human rights and social inclusion based on solidarity, peer support, deinstitutionalisation, democracy, self-representation, cross disability and self-determination.
ENIL works directly with disabled individuals, organisations (mainly Centres of Independent Living), politicians, social agents, media, the private sector and any individual or organisation interested in learning about Independent Living history, values, principles and its practical application.
ENIL works to encourage and support the involvement of young disabled people in advocating for human rights in their countries and at the European level. To this end, ENIL continues to organise study sessions for young people (in cooperation with the Council of Europe) which aims to provide participants with the necessary skills and opportunities to collaborate, debate and build alliances, on pertinent issues affecting young disabled people. Also, an ENIL Youth Network was formally established in 2012.
What is the Freedom Drive?
The ENIL Freedom Drive is one of the key campaigns of ENIL - held every two years since 2003. It provides supporters of the Independent Living Movement with the unique opportunity to meet MEPs and promote human rights issues, as well to share experiences and ideas with colleagues from around Europe. The first 6 editions of the event took place in Strasbourg, until 2015, when for the first time the venue was changed to Brussels for strategic reasons.
The ENIL 2017 Freedom Drive took place between 25th and 28th September. It consisted of a series of events, culminating with a march from the European Parliament to the European Commission, under the theme ’Independent Living Heroes: Past, Present and Future’.
Goals of the ENIL 2017 Freedom Drive were:
- To raise the key concerns of the European Independent Living movement with the European policy and decision makers in Brussels;
- To raise awareness about the need for an accessible Brussels – our European capital;
- To remember the leaders of the European Independent Living Movement who passed away in 2016, such as the founder of the Freedom Drive, Martin Naughton, as well as prominent figures Peter Lambreghts and Debbie Jolly, and to celebrate and inspire current and future leaders;
- To discuss how to make the Independent Living movement more inclusive – of disabled children and other voices that may not be heard;
- To facilitate an exchange of ideas and knowledge on Independent Living, with the aim to inspire Independent Living activists;
- To provide opportunities for development of new ideas, strategies and partnerships.
Freedom Drive 2017 Programme
The 2017 Freedom Drive was the 8th time it has taken place, bringing together 300 independent living activists from 19 countries. The week of events centred upon the promotion of the Independent Living philosophy, the importance of peer support, the need to protest and the celebration of disability rights. The core demands of this Freedom Drive included an end to the institutionalisation of disabled people across Europe, better access to personal assistance, the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) and an end to the austerity measures that result in severe cuts to support services and social security initiatives for disabled people.
During the Freedom Drive, workshops and discussion groups took place; attendees were able to learn, share experiences and plan strategies on the following topics: establishing Centres for Independent Living, creating national youth networks, monitoring the UN CRPD, exploring the notion of disability pride, and suggestions for how parents can be an ally when advocating for the rights of disabled children.
Delegates were supported and encouraged to initiate contact with their national MEPs, in an attempt to meet at the European Parliament and discuss issues related to disability policy within their member state. Disabled people from the UK held meetings with Labour MEPs and discussed issues including the recent UN CRPD committee report of the UK Government's obligations under the convention, as well as matters related to inclusive education and assessment procedures to access support.
The Freedom Drive conference focused on the topic "Independent Living: a Voice for All"; in attendance were Members of the European Parliament, the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Thyssen and other EU officials and organisations. The conference theme for this Freedom Drive was children rights; it included panel discussions on children's rights to live independently within their community, the need to promote disabled children's rights throughout Europe, and how to strengthen children's participation within social movements and activism. A highlight was a commitment from the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness, to ensure disabled children’s voices are heard at EU level.
Finally, a protest march was the culmination of the entire Freedom Drive with the theme "Independent Living Heroes: Past, Present and Future". The march began at the European Parliament, stopping at various points such as the European Commission.
Meeting between Julie Ward and Miro Griffiths
Julie, on her return from the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, attended the ENIL Freedom Drive celebration and linked up with Miro Griffiths - an activist, researcher and teacher in Disability Politics, who is based on the Wirral. The focus of the meeting was to discuss the social position of disabled people within the UK and across Europe; there was much agreement between the two, recognising that the situation faced by disabled people and their families is becoming substantially worse under the current government's direction.
There was concern regarding the government's dismissal of the UN committee's investigation, which concluded that grave and systematic violations against disabled people had taken place. In an attempt to address this, Julie and Miro discussed how changes to assessment procedures and support services could ensure disabled people had the right level of support to be part of society; it was suggested that, amongst other ideas, there needs to be radical changes to the provision and purpose of health and social care, the creation of an inclusive education system that would value all learners and a clear commitment to protect disabled people's rights during Britain's negotiated exit from the European Union.
Moving forwards, the idea for a Disability Politics conference was suggested. This would take place in the North West of England and invite local, regional and national policy makers, parliamentarians and activists to plan how to continue work on framing disability as a social justice issue. It would encourage discussions regarding: the need to politicise disability, the intersectional aspects that reinforce discrimination and disadvantage for disabled people and how to ensure disabled people access positions of power.
Also, there was a discussion on how current Labour Party structure and policy direction affects disabled people. It was suggested that the Party must continue to reflect on how it supports disabled people to access local and national political positions, including the House of Commons and House of Lords. The underrepresentation of disabled people within politics will continue until Party leaders work with disabled people's organisations and prominent campaigners to improve access and support.
Julie and Miro agreed to continue working together and take forward actions proposed at the meeting.
For more information on points highlighted throughout the report, please contact Miro Griffiths - firstname.lastname@example.org / 07835 413 238.
 This report is written by Miro Griffiths, a researcher and human rights adviser. His attendance at the 8th Freedom Drive (2017) was supported and partially funded by Julie Ward MEP. For more information on his background, please visit: https://ljmu.academia.edu/MiroGriffiths
The report includes information taken from various sources.