ENIL are delighted to induct Jean- Pierre Ringler into the Hall of Fame. He is one of the leading pioneers of the independent living movement in France. Jean-Pierre and his colleague Vanessa Jeantrelle from Coordination Handicap et Autonomie ( CHA) were instrumental in the organisation of the Strasbourg Freedom Drive this year and ENIL would like to thank them once again for all of their work and invaluable support. In this interview, Jean-Pierre speaks about the growth of the independent living movement in France over the last number of years and how he along with other independent living activists are attempting to influence positive changes in French policy to ensure its continued growth for many years to come.
Could you tell me a little about your background?
I was born in France in 1947. I became disabled at the age of eight due to explosives dating back to the second world war. After a period of rehabilitation I took up primary and secondary studies and then took a degree in English. I went on to train to become a conference interpreter. Before and after my accident I enjoyed many sports and in 1976 I co-founded an organisation that provided training for blind people for alpine skiing.
How did you become involved in the Independent Living Movement?
I came across Judy Heumann in 1987. At the time I was Chairperson of Mobility International and she attended one of the General Assemblies of the organisation and spoke about independent living. I invited her to give a talk on independent living in Paris the year after so that was the first real contact I had with the independent living movement. Ten years later in 1999 I went to Quebec in Canada to a Conference on Independent Living. As a result of this when I co-founded CHA in 2004 the implementation of independent living principles was one of the main objectives of the organisation. I became Chair of CHA in 2007 and in 2009 I first came in contract with ENIL. Although by 2009 there had already been three Strasbourg Freedom Drive’s I was not aware of the event which shows how popular the idea of independent living had been in France until 2009! Until then there were hardly any French disabled people fighting for independent living in France. At the time, I knew of the Freedom Drive through a French member of DPI. I tried to get in contact with ENIL and eventually got in contact with Jamie Bolling to offer support to the Freedom Drive but this was in June of 2009 and the planning was very much advanced. However, from then on I stayed in contact with ENIL and supported the Freedom Drive with a lot of logistical support. CHA also became a member of ENIL in 2009.
What do you think was the most significant moment of the Independent Living movement?
In general even before I went to the conference on independent living in Canada I was always convinced that the independent living philosophy was the right policy and choice to enable disabled people to live a full and independent life. Between 1995 and 2001 I worked as city councillor for implementing policy in relation to disability issues. One of the concrete impacts that I had on the department was that it changed its name to ‘Support for Independent Living’ which still remains the name of the department today.
What is your vision for Independent Living at present and for the future?
In these times of austerity it is difficult to secure all of the means for people to live independently especially as the French Government is trying to reduce technical and human support to disabled people. It is especially important in these times to at least try to ensure that people get the minimum support to live as independently as possible. It is important to put the case forward and demonstrate that is not more expensive to live by the independent living philosophy than to put people into big institutions. Economic savings are not made by doing this. At the meeting of the West Region in Antwerp in 2012, one of the participants from the Netherlands explained how they had closed a big institution and set up three smaller homes which were 30% cheaper to run. However, instead of reducing the total budget (that would have gone to the bigger institution) the money was instead used to increase the quality of life of the people living in these homes.
French policy needs to change radically, although there is reduction in large scale institutions being built, there is still smaller ones being built but these are cheaper than if independent living services were provided. I think one of the issues with the French system is that both systems cannot be run in parallel to each other – the development of personal assistance services cannot be run parallel to the continued development of institutions in France. Next year, we will be undertaking a study to compare the economic factors and the quality of life when living in your own home with personal assistant services with institutionalisation if we secure the financial means to undertake this research. If we can conduct this study we can prove that Independent Living is not more expensive and will be a big push forward for the Independent living movement. ENIL could also help with this study and provide information from other European countries and provide an international dimension to the study. On a positive note, we received a letter from the ministry a few weeks ago telling us that the service to foster independent living through peer support is considered innovatory. This is a big step forward and we can now translate this into a reality and set this service up by employing one or two disabled people. As I said earlier making progress is very hard but we are trying hard to make an impact on French policy.
Why do you think the Strasbourg Freedom Drive is such an important event?
I think it is very important and has been since its creation in 2003 and it has grown bigger since then. It has become increasingly important in France, in 2009 there was only one French participant (myself!) and in 2013 the numbers grew to there being nearly 15 french participants in attendance. In essence, three times as many French people were at this year’s event.
The Freedom Drive also helps to have an impact on European policies as Freedom Drivers meet with MEPs. I believe that the national policies in countries such as France will change if the European Union and European Parliament put pressure on its member states to change their policies towards independent living. One of the ways as I have stated before is to show that independent living is not more expensive than institutionalisation and has a positive quality of life for disabled people.