Grasp the Opportunity and Make a Difference This Year

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LAST week, Northern Ireland Office Minister Des Browne MP launched Northern Ireland's programme of activity for the European Year of People with Disabilities.

The theme adopted for 2003 is 'Promoting Rights and Participation ', and it presents us all with an opportunity both to celebrate diversity and to take action to challenge the barriers which prevent people with disabilities participating fully in all aspects of society.

There will be a year-long, Province-wide programme of events in cities, towns and villages to mark the year, but its true success will be measured by the extent to which we can improve the context in which people with disabilities live their lives and make this extend far beyond 2003.

We believe that almost 20 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland may have a disability. In many cases, people with disabilities are prevented from participating fully in business, education and all the social, and economic activities many of us take for granted. The barriers are often created by the attitudes, behaviour and the arrangements made by others. All these can be changed and 2003 is the year to do it.

Equality Commission research has shown that over 50 per cent of people with disabilities have difficulty using everyday services - shops, hotels, banks, leisure facilities, restaurants, pubs, places of entertainment and transport.

The barriers are frequently physical, and some businesses have already been active in making changes - installing ramps and widening doors for example - but when we think about providing access to everyone we must widen our perspective to include people with all kinds of disability. …