Christopher End Ulrike Werner

"Nothing about us without us“

A youth meeting for young people with and without disabilities from four different countries? Doing voluntary service in Thailand in a wheelchair? That's all been done... But how can we ensure that such flagship projects of inclusive international youth work become part of everyday life for all young people? On 10 and 11 December 2014, 43 participants from 9 nations tried to find answers at the international conference "+inclusion – Towards a more inclusive non-formal education and international youth work" in Cologne.

BildImage: Christopher End / IJAB

International youth work is an important place of learning. It is self-organised and voluntary and therefore different from formal education settings such as schools. Young people get to know their peers from other nations and cultures at youth meetings, and they learn how to act in a self-determined manner. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, disabled people have the right to an inclusive education system at all levels. By definition, this also comprises inclusive international youth work. This is a human right, no less, as Diversity Advisor Judy Gummich emphasised in her introduction speech, illustrating not only the development of the UN Conventions on Human Rights but also making links to the anti-racism movement.
In the panel discussion that followed, Judy Gummich, Elżbieta Kosek (Kreisau-Initiative e.V.), Joel Arens (Office for Disabled People of the German-speaking Community in Belgium) and Martin Sandø (National Board of Social Services, Denmark) focused on the perception of "inclusion" and individual experiences. Joel Arens criticised that, all too often, the general perception in Belgium still is that inclusion is something that is provided for people with disabilities rather than for oneself and for a better, more liveable society. The panellists agreed that non-formal education was an excellent area of operation because it was voluntary, and also because of its enabling methods and generous time frame.

Two other subjects were more controversial: the difference between integration and inclusion, and the question of how narrow or wide the definition of "inclusion" was to be. It became clear that simple or unequivocal answers do not exist, but that there is a need for a continual exchange of information and opinions, and that situation-dependent and mutually agreed definitions may be used as a working basis. As one of the participants suggested, thinking "inclusion" through to its logical conclusion would bring a downright revolutionary change to society as a whole. On the other hand, if the understanding of inclusion is too abstract, too widely based, this may well prevent activities being implemented because the protagonists may feel overwhelmed. Martin Sandø pointed out that we cannot just sit and wait for society to change but that each one of us is charged with contributing to this change. This requires small steps to be taken but – as Joel Arens made clear – it also requires us to agree on specific target groups, whether we openly name them or not.
Afterwards, around three tables in the Worldcafé, matters became more tangible when Milanka Nicolic of the Inclusive Youth Platform of Serbia, Elzbieta Kosek of Kreisau-Initiative e.V., and Rebecca Daniel of Disability and Development Cooperation (bezev) presented their own approaches as they move towards inclusive youth work, and engaged in discussion with the participants.

weltwärts alle inklusive!

bezev founded the ("just-do-it-now") campaign and started developing a concept for an inclusive voluntary service through its project "weltwärts alle inklusive!" ("all inclusive into the world"). bezev is also one of the weltwärts sending organisations, offering an inclusive voluntary service programme. This is how Kay Lieker did his voluntary service in Thailand, and at one of the Worldcafé tables, he talked about his experiences.  The YouTube film Kay in Bangkok shows how he learned to navigate escalators or cross four lanes of traffic with his wheelchair.    

Young people from four countries, with and without disabilities

The Kreisau-Initiative has many years of experience in inclusive pedagogy. The organisation runs several inclusive international youth meetings per year and has developed the "Kreisau Model", a programme that combines training for professionals working with disabled people as well as professionals involved in international youth work. To see how this works, watch the Eurodesk film Internationale Jugendbegegnung für alle (International youth encounters for all)

Equal opportunities for all!

The Inclusive Youth Platform of Serbia and the Association of Students with Disabilities aim to empower young people with disabilities through non-formal education programmes. They campaign for implementing and upholding human rights and equal opportunities for young people and students with disabilities. Website:  

Making dreams come true

The participants themselves also had examples and inspiring experiences to contribute. For Ercan Tutal, for example, inclusive international youth work has long been part of everyday life. His Dreams Academy has been organising youth encounters for 16 years. The project, based in Turkey, is a self-financing social enterprise. Dreams Academy runs a catering service called Dreams Kitchen, and offers inclusive camps and diving courses.

Strategies for the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 

The second day of the conference focused on possible strategies for the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. From Belgium and Denmark came two examples of the official implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in non-formal education.

Joel Arens of the Office for Disabled People presented the Action Plan of the German-speaking Community of Belgium called "DG Inklusiv 2025" ( This covers an eleven-year period and comprises various components such as an inclusion prize and an awareness-raising programme for the municipalities and authorities of the German-speaking Community, public and private institutions and associations as well as private individuals.

With the "Inclusion Guide", Denmark provides a scheme that supports people with disabilities in their leisure activities. Similar to the Best Buddies programme, people with disabilities are teamed up with a companion. First, the wants and aspirations of the participants are identified, then suitable leisure activities are found, and finally, contact is made with the relevant organisation, for example, a sports club. The focus is on accompanying the person while he or she joins the organisation. This ensures that people with disabilities do not remain peripheral to the group they join but become fully integrated members.   

Awareness-raising is in demand

However, the participants could also see many hurdles on the road to an inclusive approach to international youth work such as awareness-raising, family of origin, and lack of networking, finances, and policy. This can be especially frustrating for the young people themselves who return from a successful empowerment project to a day-to-day living situation that lacks inclusiveness.

Many of the participants saw awareness-raising in society, family and school as a particularly promising starting point. Claudia Schilling of Engagement Global felt that teachers often have no concept of what might be possible. Milanka Nikolic of the Serbian Association of Students with Disabilities has experienced this herself: "When my school took part in an international exchange I wasn't even asked, despite my good grades in English." But awareness-raising requires finances, as Klaus Waiditschka of Jugendhilfe und Sozialarbeit e.V. (Youth Services and Social Work Association) explained. "Financing the actual youth meetings is no problem, but there is no money for preparation and awareness-raising in schools and organisations."    

Everybody is the expert of his or her own life

"We tend to believe that those who work professionally with disabled people automatically have an especially deep understanding of their needs," said Christian Papadopoulos of designbar Consulting GbR. "But the idea that others should know what's best for a person is nonsense. Of course, disabled young people may need assistance or support. But they themselves are the experts on their own life. That's what we need to learn!"

Many young people with disabilities, said Christian Papadopoulos, were unable to even contemplate going abroad or taking part in a youth meeting. In his experience, it is much easier for disabled young people to consider spending time abroad if they go to a normal school. 

The timetable to 2017

Over the next three years, a network is to be set up to promote inclusive international youth work, explained Ulrike Werner and Daniel Poli of IJAB. Envisaged is a personal exchange in the form of meetings and conferences, including an Internet-based network. The participants contributed their initial ideas; for example, Claudia Schilling proposed including teachers as multipliers, even though the focus is on non-formal education. There was also a frequent request for greater diversity: relevant conferences especially should include more participants and speakers that have disabilities. Christian Papadopoulos stressed the importance of people with different types of disability taking part in the discussion: "Just because I am a wheelchair user I am not automatically an expert on visual impairment. We need to become more open as a group. Otherwise we have no chance of overcoming the "us and them" mentality!"

All in all, the conference met with a very positive response. The contributions as well as the discussions and working in small groups were greatly appreciated but above all, much use was made of the opportunity for networking and informal communication. As one of the participants summed it up: "Being here gives me the feeling of being less alone." Many of the participants returned home with new motivation and inspiration, but they also realized that they themselves would have to become actively involved. Within the next few weeks, a conference report will be published with a summary of the most essential experiences and ideas.  

The conference "+inclusion – Towards a more inclusive non-formal education and international youth work“ was organised by IJAB within the framework of the Innovation Forum Global Youth and was funded by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

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