‘I wish for a world that views disability, mental or physical, not as a hindrance but as unique attributes that can be seen as powerful assets if given the right opportunities‘ – Oliver Sacks
On the occasion of the Human Rights Day tomorrow and the International Day of People with Disabilities on December 3, I felt the need, as a teacher of special education, to write the present contribution in order to raise awareness about the continuous defense of the rights of people with disabilities in Cyprus. Throughout the years, Cyprus has taken a number of steps to safeguard and promote the rights of individuals with disabilities, and further enhance the respect for their dignity and acceptance. The focus of the contribution is on the constant work of the Cypriot authorities to ensure that people with disabilities are not the ‘objects’ of charity, but people with rights, who are capable to make decisions for their lives based on free and informed consent, and to participate actively in the society. Everyone is, or at least should, be enjoying social, cultural, political and economic rights, and people with disabilities should not be the exception.
Initially it is necessary to clarify what the term ‘people with disabilities’ stands for. Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides an overly broad definition by indicating that people with disabilities include ‘those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’. Opinions on the description of the term differ across disciplines and depend mainly on the angle at which each specialist focuses on. Although a doctor, a special education teacher and a sociologist use the same term, they tend to denote a different meaning to the term. What is, nevertheless, commonly accepted is that, ‘disability’ is a health condition, physical or mental, either present at birth or acquired retrospectively, which hinders a person’s participation in society in various aspect. The World Health Organization mentions that ‘‘disability’ is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations’.
When it comes to Cyprus, people with disabilities have been mentioned in a number of legislations through the years, and a number of organisations which are actively advocating for more comprehensive rights of individuals with disabilities in Cyprus – such as the Department of Integration of People with Disabilities – already existed since 2009. However, rigorous changes were in fact implemented after 2011, when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Related Issues (Ratification) Law of 2011, L. 8(III)/2011 came into force, implementing the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was signed by Cyprus in 2007. Since then, Cyprus has managed to establish efficient legal frameworks that focus on the protection and promotion of the rights of people with disabilities. In July 2013, Cyprus submitted its first country report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, where it recognised that despite the changes in attitudes and perceptions of citizens towards people with disabilities, there was still much room for improvement. The first National Disability Action Plan 2013-2015 (hereafter 2013-2015 Plan) was also included in the report, highlighting the next steps with regard to accessibility, participation, equality, employment, education, social preparation and integration, health and external action of people with disabilities. Despite the economic struggles at the time, Cyprus managed to develop numerous programs using funds from various sources. A number of infrastructures were modified to enable easier accessibility. For instance, improvements were made to the road network with the issuance of parking cards for disabled people; old public buses were replaced with new accessible buses; and special mechanisms were installed at the beaches in order to allow wheelchairs accessibility. Cyprus also significantly increased the participation of people with disabilities in cultural, sporting and other events. This is especially evident form the fact that Cyprus is among the first eight European Union member states which were selected as suitable candidates for the kick-start of the EU Disability Card, through which individuals with disabilities get equal access to specific benefits in the fields of tourism, culture, sport and transport in the participating countries. Lastly, Cyprus has sought to promote the employment of people with disabilities in cooperation and support for people without disabilities, co-financed by the European Social Fund of the European Commission.
Cyprus recognizes the weaknesses and the various areas for improvement and is committed to continuous work with strategic aspirations to implement the rights of people with disabilities. This is confirmed by the presentation of the Second National Disability Action Plan covering the period 2017-2020, and the preparation of the first National Disability Strategy 2017-2027. The 2017-2020 Plan, aims to create a structured system in which it will continuously support and strengthen the rights of people with disabilities with further educational, social, cultural, economic and health reforms. The Minister of Labour, Welfare and Social Insurances of Cyprus, Mrs. Emilianidou, correctly points out that ‘the presence of people with disabilities in education, work, culture, entertainment, sport and society in general, and their practical contribution and the utilization of their abilities, lead to a change in perceptions of disability, with these individuals being considered more active citizens and equal members of society’; and this is the main issue that the government needs to work on.
It is beyond any doubt that Cyprus puts strong efforts to create a more inclusive society for people with disabilities. The changes that have taken place so far have introduced a new culture towards people with disabilities; a culture which is unfortunately not embraced by all members of the society. People’s traditional views and prejudices against individuals with disabilities remains a worrying issue. Despite the efforts of the government, a large amount of people in Cyprus does not show the necessary respect and acceptance, and this is mainly due to lack of education on the specific issue. For instance, during the 2013-2015 Plan, there was only one action fully implemented in this regard, focusing on informing students about the rights of persons with disabilities through systematic visits from disabled people through the Health Education Programs in Primary Education, and in Secondary and Vocational Education through the Action Creativity Social Contribution Program. This might have improved to some degree the young people’s attitude, but there is still a lot of room for improvement, especially with regard to adults’ education. For instance, the fact that many drivers in Cyprus tend to ignore the wheelchair parking signs that have been placed in public places across the country, can be largely attributed to the lack of education about the rights of people with disabilities, which leads to a culture of indirect or selective ignorance.
Well-tailored awareness-raising campaigns and trainings are necessary in Cyprus, in order to create an inclusive society for people with disabilities which will allow them to fully and equally enjoy all the benefits that the society, community, schools, and professional life could offer. The main purpose of these activities should be to inform and educate people of all age groups about individuals with disabilities, and induce a change in attitude. Posing questions such as ‘Have you ever wondered how you could live without the sensation of vision or the hearing sensation? How will you survived, despite the adverse conditions of some motion problem? How would you react to a behavior disorder or emotion disorder that would lead you to isolation and marginalization from your society?’ through interactive trainings, could lead to the development of a culture of consideration, which will ultimately lead to a better understanding, acceptance and integration of people with disabilities in the Cypriot society. The smooth integration of people with disabilities must be a direct goal of every state, but also of every citizen. There should be a continuous interaction between people with and without disabilities in various aspects. For example, hiring individuals with disabilities could increase the acceptance rate in Cyprus, as people with disabilities will not be portrayed as ‘objects’ of charities, but rather as people with capacities to provide the same, or even better services than people without disabilities. Lastly, like in most countries, media is a very powerful tool in Cyprus. If wisely used, media could also help to facilitate a better understanding of people with disabilities, because all in all, what people with disabilities seek in particular is equal opportunities in all aspects of life like everyone else.
 More specifically for the actions included in the First Action Plan by theme see here: http://www.mlsi.gov.cy/mlsi/dsid/dsid.nsf/dsipd8b_gr/dsipd8b_gr?OpenDocument.
 Department of Social Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities: http://www.mlsi.gov.cy/mlsi/dsid/dsid.nsf/dsipd8a_gr/dsipd8a_gr?OpenDocument.