Workshop: Case Study - Sense in victory for deafblind rights

Francois Le Goff

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Background: Sense helps people with severe impairment of both vision and hearing by providing a range of services across the UK including family support, children's services and defending the rights of deafblind people.

In 2002, Sense's sister organisation Sense International - together with two other deafblind associations, Lega del Filo d'Oro in Italy and Casa Pia de Lisboa in Portugal - produced a charter for the deafblind citizens of Europe. There are estimated to be around 150,000 deafblind people in the EU.

The charter was part of a social inclusion project funded by the European Commission and carried out by the three deafblind organisations. Richard Howitt MEP, chair of the disability intergroup in the European Parliament, committed to giving the document his support.

The charter also received support from the European Deafblind Network that began an awareness campaign in 2003. The network is made up of deafblind people, their families and professionals from across Europe. Because it had more campaigning experience than any other member organisation, Sense took the lead role in the campaign.

Aims The aim of the campaign was to have deafblindness officially recognised as a disability by the European Parliament. This recognition was a crucial first step towards the implementation of deafblind people's rights within the European Union. With the help of five MEPs, including Howitt, The European Deafblind Network drew up a written declaration based on the charter. The declaration needed the backing of at least half of the 626-strong European Parliament to succeed.

How it worked On 6 January this year, Howitt hosted a reception and exhibition at the European Parliament with the disability intergroup of MEPs to launch the declaration.

Each network member wrote to their MEPs to ask them to attend the event.

The exhibition was held for a week in the Parliament building and featured photos of various deafblind people from different parts of Europe.

The declaration listed the rights that deafblind people should be entitled to, including the right to participate in the democratic life of the European Union and the right to work and access training.

Following Sense's lead, the European members began emailing, faxing, phoning or writing to all their countries' MEPs, calling on them to sign up to the declaration. They described their personal experiences of deafblindness to emphasise the importance of registering the declaration.

In order to collect the maximum number of signatures, the campaign made the written declaration available for signing outside the debating chambers at the end of plenary sessions in Strasbourg.

Lucy Drescher, campaigns officer at Sense, who co-ordinated the campaign, went to Strasbourg for the last two sessions and stood outside the chamber holding up posters in English, French and Spanish, encouraging MEPs to sign up.

Sense wrote a generic press release that was translated into several European languages and that could be distributed by its partners in their home countries.

Results By 1 April, the declaration was signed by 323 MEPs, and was formally adopted by the European Parliament. It was only the seventh written declaration to be adopted since the beginning of the current parliamentary term.

"Deafblind people are one of the most socially excluded groups in Europe," said Drescher. "By achieving the written declaration we feel this has created an impetus for European countries to ensure that deafblindness is recognised as a distinct disability."

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