Christian Herrmann

Conference on inclusion in German-Greek youth exchanges: Highlighting the benefits of diversity

German-Greek youth exchanges have been given more priority in recent years. To ensure that quality corresponds to quantity, the Federal Youth Ministry and IJAB organise regular expert conferences. The latest event took place on 9 and 10 November, with providers of youth exchanges between Germany and Greece discussing how young people with a disability, too, can benefit from the exchanges. What ideas did they come up with in regard to inclusion?

BildImage: ijab | Christian Herrmann

Good news for everyone working on German-Greek youth exchanges! In her welcoming address, Dorothee Jäckering from the Federal Youth Ministry reminded the participants of the conference of the great significance the Federal Government attaches to youth exchanges between Germany and Greece. Thanks to a special programme, around 200 projects have received funding since 2016. Youth forums and specialist conferences are organised to promote a dialogue between experts. And finally, in July 2017 an agreement was signed by representatives of the youth ministries of Germany and Greece that paves the way towards establishing a German-Greek Youth Office . But what does all this have to do with inclusion? “The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Germany has signed, calls for all people to participate equitably in society. The 15th Child and Youth Report  defines the right to inclusion as an important social challenge for the child and youth work field. International youth work organisations also need to take a stance on this,” said Jäckering. The organisations involved in German-Greek exchanges are very interested in inclusion, as demonstrated by the inclusive exchanges that the German Association of Guides and Scouts organises on Corfu, or the inclusive art project “Die Maske” (The Mask) by PERPATO, an association from Komotini.

Inclusive cultures, structures and practices

And why was Bayreuth chosen as the venue of the conference? Gerhard Koller from the Bavarian chapter of the German Youth Hostel Association was proud to present the accessible youth hostel in Bayreuth, which only just opened this summer. The new building shows that inclusion is hardly a fringe issue. With a sophisticated architectural design and inclusive concept, the Youth Hostel Association competed for – and won – the right to build the hostel on the site in question.

Ulrike Werner is well aware of the topicality of the issue. She is the coordinator of the IJAB project VISION:INKLUSION and has advised various international youth work organisations on developing an inclusion strategy. It incorporates a model for planning processes that is designed to help create inclusive cultures, structures and practices – almost like a quality development process that analyses recurrent problems to bring about change and to review and improve the existing situation. The new strategy for inclusive international youth work will be unveiled towards the end of the year. In 2018, VISION:INKLUSION will assist additional organisations in implementing the strategy, also through an international dialogue. “There’s no such thing as perfect inclusion, because the factors that have to be considered are far too diverse,” explained Ulrike Werner during her presentation on the strategy. “What we need is an ongoing process of improvement.”

Different debates in Germany, Greece and Europe

At the European level, inclusion is hardly a new subject. Christof Kriege, inclusion officer at JUGEND für Europa, reminded participants that “inclusion is as old as the youth promotion system in Europe, which began in 1989.” The European definition of inclusion is broader than the one customarily used in Germany. In Germany, the term is used to refer mainly to young people with disabilities; by contrast, in 2006 Europe coined the phrase “young people with fewer opportunities” which is taken to mean a larger group. According to Kriege, the breakthrough for inclusion came when the Inclusion and Diversity Strategy  was published in 2014. Yet even so, as Kriege explained, there are discrepancies when it comes to the way the term is used across Europe. In order to describe who these “young people with fewer opportunities” are, he said, the European Commission puts them into categories. “But we don’t want to work with positive discrimination,” Kriege said. “Rather, we want to highlight the benefits of diversity.”

Aristoula Papadopoulou and Christian Papadopoulos have been inclusion activists for years. Their firm, designbar Consulting, helped to draw up the inclusion strategy of VISION:INKLUSION. The two consultants were particularly valuable additions to the conference since they both have first-hand experience of the situation in Germany as well as in Greece and advise organisations in both countries. They recognise similarities in the way in which both societies view disability. Slowly, they say, attitudes are changing: previously, attempts would have been made to force people to conform to expectations; now, there is a realisation that it’s not people who are disabled, but society that disables them. Germany has responded to this with a differentiated system that accommodates people with disabilities but simultaneously marginalises them. In Greece, caring for people with disabilities is often left up to their families – a form of support that, given the crisis, has become extremely difficult for many to provide. Two years ago, in November 2015, ten thousand people with disabilities demonstrated in the streets of Athens to highlight the burdens they are expected to shoulder. This is where the two countries are similar, according to Christian Papadopoulos: “Germany and Greece both have strong movements to counter exclusion,” he said.

Inclusion is also a question of attitude

“15 years ago, no one in Komotini had any idea how to live alongside people with disabilities,” remembered Alexandros Taxildaris. He joined forces with some like-minded people to found the association PERPATO. Since then, the situation for people with disabilities has been much improved, “although we will never be done with making this town accessible,” as Taxildaris said. What PERPATO has managed, however, is to raise awareness, for instance through a Paralympic day at the local schools, where students learn what Paralympic athletes are capable of doing, and join them in sports activities.

To Taxildaris, inclusion is often a matter of attitude rather than perfect accessibility. “I don’t care if my hotel room is totally accessible,” he says. “I’d much rather be sure that I can easily engage in activities together with disabled and able-bodied friends, for instance in a museum.”

The following morning there was an opportunity to try out the sports activities offered by PERPATO. Paralympic disciplines included sit-down boccia; goalball, a ballgame for people with impaired sight, using a ball with embedded bells that was sponsored by the Greek organisation Youthorama; and psychomotor games with a rainbow-coloured sheet for people with motor difficulties. This session opened the workshop part of the conference. There was a workshop with Ulrike Werner to discuss training for experts working in German-Greek exchanges; one with Gunner Grüttner to share experiences with inclusive holidays for children and adolescents; another with Christof Kriege and Anja Hack on inclusive practices; and a session with Aristoula Papadopoulou and Christian Papadopoulos on society’s perception of disability. One of the strengths of the conference was the variety of issues on the agenda which, however, also required the participants to show some stamina. The outcomes of the conference will be documented and published for those who were unable to travel to Bayreuth in person.

So what now? Will the work on inclusion in German-Greek youth exchanges continue? Absolutely. “Simply get the job started!” as Dorothee Jäckering from the Federal Youth Ministry suggested.

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