Cathrin Piesche

Inclusion in international youth work: Cooperate – even if the road is bumpy!

What needs to happen so that international youth work and learning mobility programmes become accessible for all young people, including those with a disability or impairment? At the international conference of the IJAB project VISION:INKLUSION on 21-22 September 2016 in Mainz, Germany, participants gathered to find an answer to this question. The group comprised 60 international youth work experts, representatives of disability and community organisations, researchers, members of associations, policymakers and practitioners from Japan, Tunisia, Latvia, Romania, Hungary, Finland, Slovakia, Greece, Turkey, Iceland, Serbia, France, Ukraine and Germany.

BildImage: Klaus Mai für IJAB

How can effective communication take place in such an international and diverse group of experts? The secret was the shared objective of all participants of the conference: to achieve greater inclusion in international youth work. Strong input coming from two introductory keynote presentations.

Diversity is a plus!

In her address, Dr Adina Marina Calafateanu from the Center for Sustainable Community Development (CSCD) in Romania, a member of the Pool of European Youth Researchers, illustrated the framework conditions and definitions that exist in Europe and would also be used during the conference. Although the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified by the European Union and its Member States, in turn creating the legislative foundation for more inclusion, in practice things are far from satisfactory, she said. For instance, across Europe far too much effort is being put into giving persons with disabilities access to "disabled" projects, rather than giving them full access to genuinely inclusive activities. Dr Calafateanu closed by calling for a gradual departure from the practice of giving special treatment to persons with disabilities, not just in her home country of Romania, and to start including them in concepts from the very beginning. "Diversity is a plus!" she emphasised.

Promoting inclusion in practice and theory

The second introductory keynote presentation looked at inclusion in international youth work as seen by the young generation. Julia Strowski, Dominik Kehlenbach and Hannah Thelen presented the activities of the youth council of Junge Aktion Mensch (JAM!) (see also (; in German). In this youth network, people with and without disabilities meet two or three times a year to talk about inclusion. Their aim is to encourage other young people to make everyday life easier for everyone and promote inclusion in practice and theory. The young presenters made a three-part appeal to the audience: Enable and maintain independence! Keep communicating and asking questions! Make sure everyone can understand!

International approaches and good practices

But what is the state of play in other countries when it comes to inclusive youth work and non-formal education? How are they putting the UN Convention into practice? Are their concepts easy to apply in our own areas of work? Now the discussion moved on to international approaches and good practices. Participants split up into four thematic groups to discuss these issues and report on their experiences.

The Discrimination-Free Zone Campaign

Laura Heinonen from Youth Allianssi  Finland  presented a Finnish initiative to create a more inclusive culture: the Discrimination-Free Zone Campaign. This awareness campaign seeks to combat all forms of discrimination, bullying and harassment and invites organisations, companies, communities and events to declare themselves a "discrimination-free zone" – a powerful message to employees, jobseekers and customers, said Heinonen, that the organisation or event in question welcomes all persons regardless of gender, age, ethnic background, religious beliefs or philosophy, opinion, health, disability or sexual orientation. In Finland, the campaign was planned and implemented by the Ministry of Justice, the Finnish Disability Forum (FDF), the Finnish League for Human Rights, Allianssi – Finnish Youth Cooperation, Seta – LGBTI Rights in Finland  and the Finnish Multicultural  Sports  Federation (FIMU).

One of the biggest obstacles to more inclusion: Lack of information

In her impressive presentation, Agnes Sarolta Fazekas from the EAIE Access & Diversity Expert Community called for the UN Convention to finally be brought to life. Although, as she said, a rising number of persons with impairments are taking part in mobility programmes and demand is increasing, they are still highly underrepresented. The number of discrimination-free mobility schemes for young people with disabilities or impairments is on the rise, but there is still much work to be done before they can become a realistic option for this target group. Accessibility (local transport) in foreign countries, the portability of health insurance, support/personal assistance at one's destination, the availability of sign language interpreters and the cost of it all are just some of the many questions that have to be answered before someone with a disability or impairment can spend a period abroad.

Fazekas advised providers to perform a needs analysis to make their mobility schemes more inclusive and work out what young people with a disability or impairment really need. Organisations should not just read through an applicant's medical report; they should also reach out to them personally in an interview. What are the practical implications of their impairment or disability? What personal needs do they have? This, she said, was one way to find a satisfactory solution and to ensure that young people with a disability or impairment have access to a mobility programme.

Fazekas also pointed out the immense significance of practical orientation aids such as websites or brochures and even dialogue and communication or, in other words, the sharing of knowledge. For instance, reports and reviews by former participants of an inclusive activity can motivate others to spend a period abroad (for instance, see Experts can benefit from helpful tips on organising inclusive exchanges (e.g., No Barriers- No Borders - Mixed-Ability Projects), and anyone can read up on the do's and don'ts when interacting with others (for instance, see this A-Z of disability etiquette). In fact, the lack of information among potential participants, but also organisers, is one of the greatest obstacles to more inclusion in international youth work, concluded Fazekas. At the moment, only baby steps are being made; more structured and easy-to-access information at all levels is necessary to ensure faster progress.

Her input met with broad approval from the audience. Milanka Nikolic from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia reported on her problems finding a Ph.D. scholarship abroad because no one could tell her who would pay for a personal assistant. She has had to postpone her plans. While this is just one example, the feedback from the audience made it clear that people with a disability or impairment have to go to even greater lengths than people without before they can go abroad: they need more research, more organisation, more stamina.

Future avenues for research

To kick off day two of the conference and provide input for the subsequent working group sessions, Christian Papadopoulos (Designbar Consulting, Bremen City University of Applied Sciences) presented the state of the art in the field of research on inclusion in international youth work. Right from the start he admitted that there wasn't much to present – there are only a few (German or international) studies on the difficulties faced by disadvantaged young people when it comes to international volunteering schemes and youth exchanges, and barely any studies at all on young people with a disability. In most cases, he said, the conclusion was that these groups seldom participate in international youth work activities, but with barely any solutions offered to the problem. Existing studies, stated Papadopoulos, focused mainly on the extent of participation, with no regard given to the qualitative reasons for this underrepresentation. In highlighting this situation, he simultaneously presented future avenues for research: to identify the reasons why young people with disabilities so rarely participate, and to find ways to overcome these obstacles.

Developing an inclusion strategy for international youth work

Creating inclusive cultures – establishing inclusive structures – developing inclusive practices: the three dimensions of the Index for Inclusion figured on the agendas of the subsequent working group sessions. Participants were now called upon to find new ideas and input for an inclusion strategy for international youth work. The workshops were hosted by members of the VISION:INKLUSION group of experts.

Creating inclusive cultures

In their group, Christian Papadopoulous and Andreas Gaudzinski from the German Deaf youth organisation / Deutsche Gehörlosen Jugend discussed the obstacles to creating a more inclusive culture and how they can be eliminated. Among the problems here are the obstacles in people's heads, such as fear of change and of pursuing more creative solutions, but also structural barriers. The greatest of these is the fact that that government-sponsored support schemes are not exactly geared to inclusion. The solution? Again, participants felt that more communication is vital when it comes to creating more inclusive cultures. Plus, there needs to be more practical experience, more time and more continuity – including of a financial nature.

Establishing inclusive structures

Rebecca Daniel from bezev hosted the second workshop on establishing inclusive structures. As its main conclusion, the group stated that we need to stop focusing so much on weaknesses – it would be more helpful to focus on strengths. For instance, when planning an inclusive youth exchange, a catalogue of criteria could be defined beforehand to inquire what skills participants would be bringing to the table. The next step would then be to deal constructively with any existing obstacles. Finally, there should be closer coordination between the youth work community and those working in the disability field so that each side can benefit from the other's experience and knowledge.

Developing inclusive practices

Elżbieta Kosek from Kreisau-Initiative e.V. hosted the third working group session which collected ideas for more inclusive practices. The principles of youth work – participation, empowerment, a focus on strengths and diversity, self-determination and the voluntary nature of youth work – should also be reflected in inclusive practices, concluded the participants. A more relaxed approach to youth exchanges is necessary – not just in inclusive exchanges! – as well as more courage to take risks, more protective and personal space, and plenty of sensitive language. This way, all participants would feel comfortable and welcome. And in this workshop, too, participants desired a greater focus on opportunities rather than on challenges. Finally, the experts called for a European project and partner exchange where they can obtain practical information and discuss any problems relating to organising inclusive activities in the various countries, as well as engage in a dialogue with their international peers.

Introducing inclusion in strategies and policy fields

In the fourth working group, Alexander Westheide from Aktion Mensch and Christof Kriege from JUGEND für Europa attempted to introduce inclusion in strategies and policy fields. Westheide presented a possible model for an "inclusion plan" that was then discussed in the group. In order to implement such a plan, it was said, there has to be an awareness that inclusion (inside an organisation) is an issue in the first place before motivating people to do something about it ("Why should I make an effort?"). In addition, financial resources need to be freed up and inclusion be put on management's agenda, too.

What kind of support is necessary to mainstream inclusion? For one, it would help to have better knowledge of existing support systems and good practices and instruments for inclusion. Once again, participants called for an international exchange of good practices plus cross-sectoral cooperation between youth work and disability organisations. What kind of child and youth policy is necessary for inclusion to be mainstreamed in international youth work? (More) funding, especially for assistants, is necessary, participants agreed. More thought also needs to be given to managing financial obstacles and contradictory funding rules and regulations. Finally, inclusion needs to be put on the agenda at all political levels: local, regional and national. Generally speaking, a "Disability Mainstreaming Plan" should be adopted by all organisations and include a monitoring, evaluation and impact measurement function.

What comes next?

The issues covered and the outcomes produced at this international meeting will be summarised in a documentation pack and taken into account as the project progresses, said Ulrike Werner and Christoph Bruners from the VISION:INKLUSION project at the end of two very full discussion days in Mainz. The project's website at and the Facebook group VISION:INKLUSION will help to continue building the network and exchanging experiences. For 2017, the organisers have announced another conference at which a draft inclusion strategy for international youth work will be presented and discussed. The project experts will of course continue working on the project, culminating in 2018 in the presentation of the final inclusion strategy for international work plus an action plan and a set of recommendations for policymakers and authorities.

Impressions from the VISION:INKLUSION mid-point conference

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