In her DEREE campus lecture on “Breaking Taboos & Barriers Regarding People with Disability – What you wanted to know but were afraid to ask,” Dr Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous sought to dispel myths about people with a disability and to allow students, faculty and other guests to ask things – even things they thought were taboo – about people with disability.
On the occasion of both the International and National Day of People with Disability December 3, Former Greek MP Dr Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous, a professor of Classics at DEREE, spoke at DEREE’s John S. Bailey Library, Upper Level, to a packed house about her life as a blind person (at three, she had an accident that made her blind), her early days as a student on full scholarship at PIERCE-ACG, her further studies in the US, as well as her fruitful career to date.
Dr Bernidaki-Aldous also outlined her efforts to abolish the discrimination that people with disabilities face – both as a lawmaker and as a citizen. She was one of those who helped write the Americans with Disability Act, which took effect in 1992 and has served as the precursor for UN and EU legislation concerning policies for people with a disability. She is also renowned for her work concerning issues of disability in her former role as Chairwoman of the Committee on Disability in the Hellenic Parliament, where she served as a statewide MP 2004-2007 (for the New Democracy party). She now serves as a Senior Advisor of Diversity & Equal Opportunity for the American College of Greece, where she also teaches Classics (DEREE).
Claudia Carydis, ACG’s Vice President for Public Affairs, introduced Dr Bernidaki- Aldous, calling her an “inspiration for her love of life, endless energy, and her unique ability to overcome difficulties – an inspiration to all of us.”
On the occasion of her lecture at DEREE, Dr Bernidaki-Aldous was also interviewed on Athens International Radio.
She also spoke to Touch Base:
What were you trying to convey with your speech?
My interest in this topic is both personal and professional. I wanted to share my experiences as a blind person, but also to show with my example that a blind person can be a university professor (teacher and scholar), a politician, a mother and in general an active member of society. It is important to talk about the issues and share information.
This helps towards the elimination of ignorance, which is the cause of prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. In my present role as a Senior Advisor of Diversity and Equal Opportunity for ACG, I want to be part of a campaign that will help to “break the barriers”, which people with disabilities face. This is in accordance to article 8 of the UNCRPD on “Awareness-Raising,” which mandates that States-Parties (as well as private organizations, agencies, educational institutions, the Media, employers) “undertake to adopt immediately, effective and appropriate measures to raise awareness throughout society”. The aim is to “combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices,” to “promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities” and to “foster respect for their rights and dignity.”
What are some of the more obvious myths that you tried to dispel with your lecture about people with disability?
More than the suffering and burden of a disability, more than the physical barriers people with disability face, it is the barriers put there by society that do the most harm. It is the attitudes of others that must change.
It is a great misconception that people with a disability are unhappy, helpless and even evil. In reality most of them can and want to participate in all aspects of life and to be useful and helpful to society. Many are able to contribute to society as parents, teachers, politicians, artists, and professionals in general – and even volunteers in many fields.
It is wrong to think that people with disabilities would be offended if they heard the “name” of their disability. E.g., “people with special skills or special needs” is not the way to refer to any category of disability. “Blind” is the word for people who cannot see. Some people with disabilities have “special skills and talents” (Stevie Wonder is a great singer), all people with disabilities have some “special needs” (blind need to read with Braille and deaf use sign language). However, their “needs” do not constitute their identity. To avoid the name of the specific disability (blind) and to call a blind person as someone “with special skills” is a euphemism, and shows embarrassment and ignorance on the part of the speaker.
Can you tell us about worldwide legislation on the rights of people with a disability?
With the ADA and the UNCRPD (and the legislation adopted by member states of the UN and the EU), there is now a new legal culture. People with disabilities need and claim equal treatment before the law, “equal opportunity” in the context of “human rights”. According to Article 5 of UNCRPD “Equality and non-Discrimination,” “States-Parties recognize that all persons are equal before and under the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law.”
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA 1990-1992) was the precursor of both the United Nations’ legislation (UNCRPD 2006-2007) and of the European Union’s legislation, which was adopted by the EU member states as a whole (2010). The Hellenic Parliament voted for and ratified the UNCRPD and its related Protocols (law 4074/2012), thus Greece also must legislate according to the principles and mandates of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. So both legislation and guidelines of the EU as well as the UNCRPD, make it mandatory for Greece to legislate and establish policies that would not discriminate against people with disabilities. This must apply in all areas of life, from education and employment opportunities to travel, entertainment, communication, health, etc. In other words, persons with disabilities must participate in all aspects of social and political life (Article 29 UNCRPD).
What would you tell young people with disabilities today on how to strive on?
I would advise young people (including those without any disability) to believe in themselves and to gain awareness of their own special circumstances. To solve any problems, you must first acknowledge them. Young people must know that they must work hard if they wish to achieve their goals. I believe that I served as a real life example to my classmates and to my colleagues. I became blind at the age of three, but I was able to study (beginning from the elementary school of my village in Rethymnon, Crete to obtaining my Ph.D. in Classics from Johns Hopkins University).
This was all possible because of my personality and my personal abilities. However, nothing would be possible if I were not offered the opportunities that I was given. PIERCE, for example, gave me full tuition scholarships all through the six years of my study at the High School, and broke the rules and norms when the administration and teachers decided to enroll a blind child. So, I would tell young people, as I have told my own children, to be ready to grasp opportunities and to work hard to create opportunities for themselves and for others. In the process of confronting the difficulties of life, one must be honest to recognize both the problems and to invent the solutions.
Who inspired you to strive to be who you are today? That is to overcome the limitations of your blindness?
I was taught to believe in myself by my parents. Also my teachers were a great positive influence. From PIERCE, I must mention Koralia Krokodeilou. I plan to write a book about my years as a student, so I will save this for later.
Would you ever become involved in politics again?
Regarding politics, “you never say ‘never.’” I believe I have still a lot to offer and to do, but I could not give a more specific answer at this point.
For more information on the life and work of Dr Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous, please visit: http://www.bernidaki.eu/