It was December 3rd 1996; I still remember a cold and windy day here in Brussels. After 2 years of carefully exploring and discussing issues we had the first formal EASPD General Assembly. Colleagues from Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria agreed to give it a try. Afterwards we had a meeting with Mr Pádraig Flynn, European Commissioner for DG5 (later DG Employment and Social affairs). Mr Flynn officially launched EASPD, the European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities. An interesting little detail was the presence at this first official meeting of Mr J. Wezeman, president of the very young European Disability Forum as observer. It announced in a way an intense process of trust building and future cooperation with disabled people’s organisations at European level.
As we moved office last summer, I had to restructure our archive and found back my 20 year old opening speech from the first EASPD General Assembly. It really was a “back to the future” experience. In my 20 year old opening speech I stressed the need for a shift from an “offer” to “demand” driven service provision; I stressed the importance of professional and managerial capacity building and last but not least I called for networking across sectors, leaving our social sector bubble. I also challenged the fact that we as service providers were not recognised as key stakeholders by the European institutions, not at Council of Europe level nor at the level of the European Union.
20 years later it seems fair to say that we have made a huge step forward.
EASPD is now a well-respected player working closely together with the European institutions and the United Nations. EASPD contributes to the work of the Committee of experts on the rights of persons with disabilities set up by the Council of Europe and has a permanent seat in the High Level Group on Disability of the European Union. We have excellent relations with the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and so many other bodies and structures. We’re a recognised partner at United Nationals level too.
The sometimes rather difficult relation with EDF and other DPOs in the past has turned into a relation of mutual respect and cooperation. Together with DPOs, EASPD is now an active promotor of co-production and stakeholder cooperation. EASPD also contributes significantly to the implementation of the UNCRPD, especially with regard to living in the community, inclusive education and employment. Moreover, we’re reaching out to different actors in society such as other public services, employers, universities, schools and local authorities. Indeed, building a more inclusive society is a shared responsibility. A few weeks ago a top level senior civil servant of the European Commission made my day stating that we’re seen as a bridge builder.
Ambitious and optimistic as we were those days about European cooperation, my speech ended by affirming that we will not only contribute to higher quality of services and inclusion of persons with disabilities, but also want to take part in the development of a social yet more united Europe. Indeed I still feel the thrill, the enthusiasm, the commitment of this very first GA…we would make a difference in Europe…I hope we did.
Today our sector is going through turbulent developments. Allow me to list the most important challenges for tomorrow. We’re recovering slowly from an economic crisis that came close to breaking the backbone of services in many countries. We have to cope with a huge increase in demand due to demographic change - including ageing - and other societal developments. Services should become increasingly an integral part of vibrant and lively communities, the expertise and know-how built last century should be brought into the community. Shortages in the workforce and the (re)training of staff are worrying. Can we convince the next generations that our sector is an interesting and worthwhile place to work? A shift in systems to fund services is observed; the famous triangle - authorities, providers, users - is put upside down. Moreover, authorities withdraw slowly from taking full responsibility for the provision of the much needed support provision. Last but not least the journey towards co-produced services we started has to become a common practice across the European continent.
Ten years from now the social services sector might look quite different from what we know now.
All this happens in an atmosphere of rising nationalism and decreasing “belief” in Europe. 70 years of peace in the EU is obviously not convincing enough for many politicians and opinion leaders. A clearly higher quality of life and increased human rights enjoyment for all thanks to European cooperation also seem to be an ignorable little side effect. But as said already, in EASPD I can still feel the thrill; every day we work towards a more inclusive and social Europe.
What can we learn from all this for tomorrow? For me the most important lesson is that if committed individuals join forces the sky is the limit. The most important barrier is not the system or the legal framework…it is our imagination.
So let’s keep on dreaming about an inclusive and socially strong Europe, about co-production and human rights and about reaching out and leaving our silos.
And equally important...let’s keep on searching for passionate individuals willing to embark on a journey before knowing where they will end up.
If we can dream it we can do it.