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Remarks by H.E. Valdas Adamkus, President of the Republic of Lithuania, at the 21st Annual Meeting of the European Academy of Childhood Disability


Distinguished Organizers and Participants of the Conference,
Ladies and Gentlemen!

 

I am delighted to welcome members of the international goodwill community here in Lithuania, celebrating the millennium of the first mention of its name. Looking back and reflecting on the high and low points of its history, Lithuania is building the present and the future guided by its achievements and learning from its mistakes.

 

One of such mistakes is directly related to the theme and objectives of today's conference. I am speaking about public attitude to disabled people, which had prevailed for half a century in Lithuania, determining their place in society or, to be more precise, their marginalization and social exclusion. It has been long recognized that social culture, family culture and health care culture are integral links in the long chain of common culture, reflecting the actual progress of society and its true moral face. In all times the national and social maturity of a state has been best revealed by its treatment of the most vulnerable groups, especially the disabled who need extra care and attention.

 

The fifty year long totalitarian occupation regime was resolved to destroy, systematically and without hesitation, our values and traditions cherished for centuries and to change our approach to individual people, their health and place in society. Parents were cynically advised to give up their disabled children because they were, allegedly, of no use to society and therefore their lives were worthless. Disability in children was perceived as punishment for the things done wrong by their parents, which brought shame on the family - something that is now seen as an appalling act of emotional violence.

 

Twenty years ago, Lithuania regained independence and immediately stood in defense of the disabled and their families, launching many social integration projects. Parents who fought for the right of their disabled children to live full, decent and dignified lives contributed to the development of democracy in Lithuania. They made state institutions re-tailor their approach to the individual person and they made society re-shape its moral principles. Government and society recognized the fundamental right of their fellow citizens to health care, education, work, and active personal and public life. I would like to underscore that the introduction of these rights in public life has benefited not only the disabled, but the entire society at large which discovered the values of humanism and made them real through spiritual growth and healing work - not manipulating statements.

 

Today, I would like to say a sincere thank-you to those parents who worked hard and patiently to protect their children, at the same time protecting the future of our state and real, not paper, democracy. I feel very proud of the Lithuanian welfare society "Viltis" and its every-day fight for the rights of the disabled - which has brought change to our society, upholding the core values of our life. Thank you all!

 

Your work is greatly meaningful and filled with hope, even though these are the first steps on a long road. Regrettably, systemic changes and achievements are still attained by private initiative and endurance. We need further change, further progress and further common effort. It is not enough to just speak about the return of disabled people to daily life and society. We have to develop a research-based system of full integration of disabled children so that their parents do not have to argue, over and over again, for the rights of their children in governmental offices. Treating disability as a medical condition only is unacceptable: we have to investigate all related psychological, ethical and social aspects. We must build an accessible, safe and creative environment for disabled children, which would be conducive to their self-expression. This is also about parents and their chance to live a normal life without betraying and excluding their children.

 

When dealing with childhood disability, we will always confront painful issues that cannot be either changed or cured. However, we can and we must change ourselves and our attitudes, all of us: those directly related to our disabled fellow citizens and also the whole of society.

 

I am well aware of the long and difficult work that we must all do and the pain, challenges, disillusionment, and discoveries that await us. Let us learn patience and fortitude from those who have been long on this road without losing hope and faith in the future. I wish the same strength and commitment to all the people of Lithuania.

H.E. Mr. Valdas Adamkus, President of the Republic of Lithuania

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