Taking action for the right to support in Flanders with a new and growing action group. Photo of people talking to each other with a minister in the middle

Katrijn Ruts, Policy Advisor GRIP

In Flanders, Belgium, ENIL member ‘GRIP‘ is supporting a new growing Action Group of people with disabilities to get their voices heard. They demand a real right to support and therefore a solution for the persisting waiting lists for personal budgets for support and personal assistance.

On Tuesday 30th April the Right to Support action group followed the plenary session of the Flemish Parliament. From 2:30 PM to 3:30 PM, more than 20 people with disabilities were present in the stands, visible to all parliamentarians.

This was what spokesperson of the action group Karen Thoonen said in the press release: “Our question for the parliamentarians is: why don’t you solve the waiting lists for personal budgets for support for people with disabilities? For me this is of vital importance. I have already been on the waiting list for a personal budget for 14 years. My life really stands still. If I had a budget I could live more independently and be less dependent on family and friends.”

Public action as a game-changer?

GRIP wants to support the people with disabilities who don’t tolerate the fact that the Flemish government does not release enough budget to give them the support they are entitled to. They criticize the long waiting list that is not being resolved. At the start of this legislature, 16,142 adults with disabilities were on the waiting list for a personal budget, now 1,000 more, namely 17,201. All these people are therefore deprived of their right to support. Also a few thousand children are waiting for a personal budget. It is a shame that this happens in Flanders, after all a rich region in Europe.

We think there is not enough pressure form society to get this problem solved. A growing movement of people speaking out for this right to support with public actions could create more pressure. This might be a game changer. In any means these actions are very necessary to prevent we move backwards. Because some important political parties might try to take away the entitlement for a personal budget of thousands of people on the waiting lists.

After we left the stands, the minister of welfare came to talk with us. She recognizes the effort we made to come to the parliament and listened to our testimonials. Although this does not mean that she or her party will suddenly solve the problem, such dialogue is an opportunity to show a united group of strong people standing up for their rights and the rights of people on the waiting list.

Gathering and public action

In the parliament we had to be quiet to respect the rules about not disturbing the good functioning of the parliament. We weren’t even allowed to applaud when a member of parliament made some statements we agreed on.

That’s why we gathered before going to the Parliament. At the Freedom Square nearby we showed our messages to the public, with banners and photographs and messages of people supporting the demand of the action group. 45 persons came by, mostly persons with a disability and their family. Also politicians came to support, although mainly from one political party.

Critizing Inaccessibility

In the preparation of the action day we were confronted with another problem: a problem of inaccessibility of the Flemish Parliament. We decided to make this problem clear in the press release, like this:

Karen Thoonen: “We and our rights are still too often invisible. We are not seen or heard enough and our rights are still too often silent. That is why we will sit visibly in the stands of the Flemish Parliament today. But even in parliament we are second-class citizens. We were told that only 1 wheelchair user can be in the stands at a time. We will therefore have to work with a rotating system to give everyone who uses a mobility scooter or wheelchair the opportunity to attend the parliamentary meeting.”

This problem of inaccessibility was also picked up by the Belga Press Agency and two parliamentarians mentioned it in their public speeches. We will discuss internally if we follow up this problem sending a complaint.

Looking back and looking forward

This was the sixth in a series of actions. The first three were in Brussels in September, October and November 2023. In February and March 2024 we went to Ghent and Hasselt.

The action group decided not to organize just one action but instead regular actions. In this way different people have more possibilities to take the chance to attend an action. Every time there is a new chance to reach out to the press. And we create new moments to spread our message on social media. The movement and group of people that participate can grow and we have more possibilities to create awareness about the right to support. Because this is about rights, not charity.

We also try to innovate and create new action ideas. We try to add new elements or change a bit the specific politicians we are directing to. The first action we went to the square of the building of the Flemish government on the weekly moment they meet. The second action we passed by the three governmental parties and discussed with them about our message. The third action we placed six coffins next to the governmental building and played the death march of Chopin. Because people ask themselves “do we have to wait until we die?” and for some people it is so hard they ask for euthanasia. The fourth time we made a symbolic waiting row at the door of the Flemish Agency for Persons with Disabilities (VAPH) in Ghent. VAPH is the agency that pays the personal budgets to the people. The fifth action we did the same at the VAPH in Hasselt. For some people Brussels is to far, but they did come to Ghent or Hasselt. In Hasselt we introduced the use of chains referring to the fact that people feel chained and are lacking freedom without the necessary support. We also launched a foto project showing the faces and messages of people supporting the demand of the action group. A lot of them are also on the waiting list but cannot attend the action. In this way we can also include their faces and let them be present.

We are also working on a song about being without perspective on the waiting list and short video of it.

Getting stronger and stronger

The next action will be 4th of June in Brussels again. We will make a symbolic waiting row at the door of the head office of the Flemish Agency for People with Disabilities. We probably will start or end our row at the Flemish Human Rights Institute nearby, to refer to a report and recommendation they made to the government about solving the waiting list and implementing the right to support written down in the UN CRPD.