Nearly a year has gone since I received the call from Peter’s brother-in-law with the tragic news of Peter’s death. The initial shock is gone, but the room that was filled with vibrant discussions, debates and peer exchange with Peter is empty. ENIL has gone on but Peter’s absence is heavy. We miss his advice, proposals and innovative ideas. We miss Peter’s energy and wit, his spirit in the promotion of Independent Living. I miss Peter as a colleague, a fellow activist but most of all as a friend.
-Jamie Bolling, Executive Director, European Network on Independent Living (ENIL)
In this month’s publication of the Independent Living Heroes article series we pay tribute to one of ENIL’s beloved members, a powerful driving force of the European Independent Living Movement and irreplaceable catalyst of the international disability movement, an embodiment of Independent Living himself – Peter Lambreghts. It was with great sadness and shock that we lost him one year ago and it is with the inspiration of his life and struggle that disabled people across Europe continue the fight to make Peter’s life dream come true – to establish an inclusive society where disabled people are full and equal citizens. To celebrate Peter’s life and legacy, we invite you to join us for the ENIL 2017 Freedom Drive in Brussels from 24 to 28 September 2017.
Peter Lambreghts, or Perry, as his dear ones knew him, was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1971. In his early childhood he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and immediately directed to ‘special schools’ and institutional care by medical specialists, as common practice of the time (and unfortunately very much of the current). However, his parents rejected this suggestion right away and set the foundation of Peter Lambreghts’ independent life. Later he would describe this as a decision that defined his life. So, young Perry had the privilege of inclusive education ‘avant la lettre’ and never had to face segregation as opposed to many of his disabled peers. He enjoyed mainstream school and university education, was able to realize his full potential and more so to fight for others’ right to do so, to travel as a wheelchair user, and to experience the joys of family life and fatherhood. Inspired by his mentors Jan-Jan Sabbe, founder of the Flemish Independent Living Movement and Adolf Ratzka, founder of the Independent Living Institute in Sweden, Peter Lambreghts was also very well aware of his privileges, therefore fought for enabling Independent Living for hundreds of disabled people in Belgium and many more around Europe.
Peter Lambreghts’ tireless activism is testament to his commitment to the Independent Living philosophy, his dedication to his peers and the expression of the great inner energy he possessed. Lambreghts was elected as ENIL Board member at the 2010 General Assembly, he also worked for ENIL as a Senior Officer. He also worked for the Flemish User Consultation for Persons with Disabilities (VGPH) and the Expertise Centre Independent Living Gent. As a policy officer and spokesperson for Onafhankelijk Leven, Lambreghts often shared his expertise and experience through public lectures and press. He therefore was widely perceived as the face of Independent Living in Flanders. In addition, he was a member of the Advisory Committee and the Permanent Working Group Care and Assistance of the Flemish Agency for Persons with Disabilities (VAPH), board member of the European Disability Forum and the Co-Chair of the European Expert Group on the Transition from Institutional to Community-based Care. During the 14th session of the UN CRPD Committee in Geneva Peter Lambreghts represented ENIL as part of the European Disability Forum delegation and addressed the Committee presenting the ENIL – ECCL’s Shadow report on Article 19 of the CRPD to emphasize ENIL’s focus on the Article.
Lambreghts’ commitment to the Independent Living philosophy and ethical and human rights discourses was complimented by his pragmatic approach to the promotion of these ideals. He had a clear grasp of reality and very well understood that financial and economical considerations are often prioritized in political decisions and policy-making. In research articles such as “Every Euro Counts” he analyzed the organization of support for disabled people from an economic point of view. Through his work at the Expertise Centre Independent Living, Lambreghts provided evidence-based arguments for direct payment schemes and proved that Personal Assistance costs less for the state and society than institutional care.
As one of the founders of the EU Alliance Against the Cuts, he fought to bring attention to the human rights crisis caused by austerity measures, which disproportionately targeted disabled people, driving them into poverty and institutional segregation. Lembreghts’ evidence and testimony-based address to the European Parliament in 2012 was an attempt to put the Europe-wide social crisis on the agenda of the European policy makers.
Peter Lambreghts had an exceptional talent in reaching out not only people’s minds but also their hearts. At public lectures, expert interviews, inspiring speeches at the European Parliament, he raised awareness and convincingly lobbied for Independent Living. He strongly believed in the importance of raising this awareness, especially among disabled people, as means of personal empowerment and emancipation and of bringing meaningful change not only from a top–down perspective, but also from a bottom-up one. For sure, Peter Lambreghts was well aware of his extraordinary persuasion skills as he successfully put them into use from young age, as illustrated by the story of the letter written by the 17-year-old Perry to his father, defending his right to keep his long hair. Peter Lambreghts was well aware of his many other talents and achievements as well – of his fearless pro-activeness, versatility, strategic insight and leadership skills, his success in changing the policy on accessibility and participation of disabled people in his own village, and his ability to motivate disabled peers in counseling groups that he facilitated. Yet, he was also well aware of the role of collective action for slow but steady change and saw himself as part of a movement and a team, as much as a leader and a pioneer.
For his contribution and achievements, Peter Lambreghts has been widely recognized and celebrated by peer activists and colleagues from all over Europe. In 2015, Lambreghts, together with co-chairs of the European Group on Transition from Institutional to Community-based Care Maria Herzog and Luk Zelderloo, received an award for his significant contribution to a world without barriers by the Zero Project. Without a surprise, his death was received with great shock and grief by many of his friends and by those whose life he touched whether through his professional activity or personally. Hundreds of people flooded the church of Sint-Jozef in Heide, Belgium, from all over Europe to pay tribute to and say final goodbye to Peter Lambreghts. Many griefed but also celebrated Peter’s memory in a flood of condolences on online platforms, including in a virtual condolence book created by ENIL and Onafhankelijk Leven.
Peter’s colleague, director of Onafhankelijk Leven, Koenraad Depauw, credited him as an authority widely recognized by the Flemish Parliament and the Government, the European Parliament and various working groups of the European Commission, as well of the United Nations; as a powerful man with an open heart, a symbol of strength, resistance and struggle, who radically opposed institutions and whose message was clearly heard throughout Europe, but also a man of love and warmth who conquered many hearts. Another dear friend of Peter Lambreghts, Secretary General of Uloba – Independent Living Norway, Vibeke Marøy Melstrøm, hailed him as one of the great leaders and most dedicated activists of the Independent Living Movement, a true warrior for many disabled people whose voice will be reverberated in the coming Freedom Drives.
Peter Lambreghts will be celebrated in the upcoming ENIL 2017 Freedom Drive, as a bright star in the constellation of Independent Living Heroes of the Past, Present, and the Future. A father, a husband, a dear friend and a great mentor, a true Independent Living Hero, Peter will live in the hearts of the many he touched and his dream of a just and equal society will be reached, for as he often liked to say ‘the sky is the limit’.