Support for all
When Yannis Vardakastanis was 12, he had to leave his family and home on the Greek island of Zakynthos and move to Athens. The reason was that he had lost his sight, and the necessary support for him to continue his education was not available on the island.
“I consider those years the most difficult of my life,” says Vardakastanis, now in his mid-50s and president of the Brussels-based European Disability Forum, which represents 80 million Europeans with disabilities.
But those teenage years also shaped the beliefs and values of a man who has spent his entire career representing the rights of disabled people. Vardakastanis says he did not commit himself to this cause for intellectual reasons: “It was more in my blood than in my mind.”
As a teenager he was involved in the youth section of a Greek organisation for the blind, as well as the student wing of the socialist party. After studying political sciences at the University of California in Berkeley, Vardakastanis returned to Athens “and continued where I left off”.
His first job, in 1982, was as a special adviser to the Greek education minister, focusing on the education of students with disabilities.
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Vardakastanis’s time in the United States proved extremely valuable because, he says, California was “about a half-century ahead” of Greece in providing support for disabled people.
In the 1980s, while working at the Greek labour ministry, Vardakastanis had his first opportunity to interact with the European Commission: he represented Greece on a committee for people with disabilities, and was also involved in establishing the European Blind Union. His first international assignment came a couple of years later when he was appointed chairman of the European Blind Union’s Employment and Social Rights Committee.
Vardakastanis has always been active in civil-society organisations, even when working for the Greek government, as he was for most of the 1980s, or as a private consultant on disability policies.
“Citizens should get involved. Participation is important,” he said during a recent trip to Brussels for a meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), where his work has included drafting a report on the European Disability Strategy.
Vardakastanis is in Brussels most weeks as part of his work with the EDF. He has been involved with the organisation since its creation in 1996, and has been president since 1999. The EDF represents the interests of all people with disabilities, and its members include national groups and European federations for specific disabilities. “It has proved the correct approach,” he says, adding that the EDF successfully lobbied to put disability in the EU treaty in 1997.
As EDF president, Vardakastanis helped draft the United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities, the first international treaty specifically aimed at improving the lives of 650 million people worldwide. “It’s not a declaration, but a legally binding treaty,” Vardakastanis says. The EU ratified the convention in December 2010; “a historic development” as it was the first international human rights treaty the EU had signed up to. A year later, the presidents of the European Commission, Council of Ministers and European Parliament met the EDF to discuss its implementation.
With a solid legal framework in place, Vardakastanis says the emphasis must now be on removing “the gap between words and deeds”. Having worked on disability issues for 30 years, there are few people as qualified to make that happen.