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Development Aid to the Disabled - International Collaboration - Our Common Responsibility

Address by the Prime Minister of Iceland

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to be here today at the opening of this conference on development aid to the disabled. In particular, I should like to welcome those of you who have come from overseas to share with us your views and experience in this area.

It is estimated that disabilities affect the lives of about 600 million people all over the world, the vast majority of whom live in developing countries. A large proportion of those people live in unsatisfactory circumstances as regards their social environment, economic standing and access to health care. It is often the case that disabled people are excluded from educational and employment opportunities and, therefore, have to rely completely on their families or the local community for physical and financial support. Not only are these people already at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with exclusion of this type, but the fact is that a higher proportion of the disabled also have to struggle with the burden of poverty. It is therefore obvious that one of the main goals in international collaboration for this new century must be to give more attention to the plight of the disabled.

The international community must set itself targets in this area regarding education, health services, administration, employment, child welfare and care. We must also give attention to research and diagnostic work, technical counselling and the sharing of knowledge. If we work towards these goals in a purposeful way, and if they are made part of the common reality of all people, then it is likely that the disabled will have a better chance of playing a larger part in their own communities.

In addition to establishing these clear targets, the international community must recognise that the demand for greater participation and equal status for people with disabilities is basically a human rights issue. And, indeed, the United Nations have taken some important steps towards redressing their rights. Here, an important milestone was reached in 1993, when the United Nations decided unanimously to issue clear standard rules on the equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities. Although these rules are not legally binding on the member states, they provide a modern framework for policy and legislation to cover work in the interests of people with disabilities all over the world.

Furthermore, the international obligations that are now observed as guidelines in policy on the disabled will in the future be of greater importance than general references to the prohibition of discrimination. They will involve binding demands for the elimination of the social and environmental hindrances that prevent people with disabilities from participating in the social and economic amenities that are generally available. This is a positive development.

In fact, already some fundamental changes in policy and emphases have taken place since the foundation of societies working in the interests of disabled people. In particular, the central assumption now is that the disabled constitute an integral part of society and have the right to participate in the life of the community on their own terms. We can, therefore, expect to see fewer and fewer separate and special provisions for rehabilitation, employment, housing and educating disabled people. Pressure from the disabled themselves will result in greater recognition of their capacities and potential, and broader opportunities for them to become involved and contribute to society through the removal of environmental and other hindrances.

International organisations have taken increasing notice of the changes I have mentioned, but it is evident that a lot remains to be done, in the developing countries and elsewhere, if disabled people are to be given the same rights as other citizens. Political determination, leadership and the involvement of international organisations will be required to follow the changes through. Involvement by international organisations has often been limited, with the result that many nations have suffered from a lack of information, lack of co-ordination and lack of a clear policy.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is vital that mechanisms exist within the international community for the exchange of information and skills to deal with disabilities and methods of reducing their effects. Here, the Nordic countries have an important role to play as we have the expertise and experience that can play a crucial role in the development and application of the services currently available to disabled people. I also believe it is important that the Nordic countries adopt a common policy regarding the disabled within the United Nations and other international organisations, and this policy should include Access for All as one of its key concepts.

Finally, let me extend my gratitude to the organisers of this conference, I truly believe an event such as this one is an important step in our moves to create better conditions for the disabled.

Thank you.

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