On 25th June, I was in Dublin Castle to speak to the 49th meeting of COSAC (Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union).
COSAC comprises members of national parliaments across [and within] the European Union. This conference was held in Dublin as for the first six months of 2013, Ireland held the Presidency of the Council of the EU.
I was there to speak during the session entitled ‘A European Future for Young Citizens’. On the panel there were three young people representing marginalised groups. I was asked for my input as a young Irish citizen with a disability.
Originally I was to read a prepared speech and take part in the debate at the end of the session. However at the last minute, the format changed and I did my best to stumble through a conversation with Dominic Hannigan, who was leading the sessions and is Chairman of the European Affairs Committee.
Before the debate section got underway the speeches prepared by myself and the other two girls were handed out to the delegates so that when question time came around, they could pick up on something we might have written.
If you want to watch the whole session, you can go here. For some reason, my initial conversation with Dominic has been cut from that video. Therefore to watch my opening comments, I have to redirect you to here. Can't bear to watch it myself! :) I was so nervous...Watch out for the word "like", I say it a lot!!
And finally if you don’t want to watch the whole session, here are my closing remarks.
Below is the speech I had prepared for the day.....
A European Future for Young Citizens
What I want to see from the EU over the next 30 years.......
Firstly, I would like to thank COSAC for allowing me this opportunity to share my thoughts on what I would like to see from the EU over the next 30 years.
As a young disabled person my perspective will differ from that of my fellow panellists Nevin and Marietta. In fact, my whole life is different from that of most of the people in this room. It’s different because of my disability.
My disability has an impact on most areas of my life – today I’d like to focus on four of those areas: travel, attitudes to disability, education and participation in any changes which will occur.
When I talk about holidays with my friends, sometimes I envy them. They can avail of cheap deals they found on the internet or they can leave the planning to someone else and just show up at the airport with a passport and a suitcase! What I envy is that freedom they have.
I can’t take off just like that; when I decide to go on holidays, a serious amount of planning is involved. I need to know...
- Is my destination suitable for someone in a wheelchair? Are the roads and paths easy to traverse in a wheelchair? Will I be able to use the transport system in the area?
- Whilst I will have made sure to book a hotel which advertises that they have disabled facilities; will my room have a roll-in shower with a shower chair provided? Will the toilet bowl be positioned to allow me to transfer from my chair?
- Then what about my oxygen needs – can I rent an oxygen concentrator there?
- Will I be able to get help if, for example, my portable oxygen or my motorised chair breaks down during my trip?
When I have all that information, I can think about the usual things - What will the weather be like? What clothes will I need to bring?
There are people, with similar needs to myself, who find this level of preparation too daunting and opt out of holidays abroad. I think this is a real shame. That’s why I support the introduction of an EU disability card; so that when people do make the decision to travel within the EU they can be assured of equal access to things like transport, culture and leisure.
Recently, my trips abroad have been to the USA. What I like most about my time in America is the refreshing attitude the people have towards people with disabilities. Over there I’m treated like an equal. I’m not patronised. In restaurants, the waiters don’t ask my parents what I’d like to eat. In shops when I approach an assistant for help, they don’t look at me like I have two heads. This difference becomes most apparent when I return from my travels and go about daily life again where people tend to define me by my disability. I want to live in a European Union where disabled people are treated as equals and can participate in society just like everyone else.
When it comes to education I am looking towards my final semester of a Social Science degree in University College Dublin. It’s taken me a bit longer than usual to get to this stage but I’m lucky in that I've had the support of my family and the university throughout my time in third-level education.
In my circumstances, the University accepted me first as Rachel the student, then as Rachel the student with a disability. During my time on campus, my disability would, at times, impact on my ability to be a student but by getting support during those times, I could go on to achieve just as much (or more) than any of the able-bodied students. My attendance here today is a perfect example of this!
My studies have been quite wide-ranging but one topic I’ve been drawn to is the issue of social inequality. As a member of the disabled community, I've experienced some of the discrimination that comes with being part of a marginalised group. In this instance, one can either sit back and hope things will improve or get out there and be part of the change. I believe change is most effective when everyone’s input is taken into account. That's why I believe the participation of disabled people in the policy-making process is essential.
So let’s aim that in 30 years every EU citizen will be able to participate fully in all that the Union offers. Let’s not just aim for economic integration but social inclusion too.