Late last year Harrow Mencap sent a delegation to Tel Aviv to attend the ‘Belonging Conference of AKIM Israel & Inclusion International’. Myself, our CEO Deven Pillay, and the Head of Advocacy Yvonne Lee joined other learning disability campaigners for the two-day event.

The purpose behind the conference was to share good practice from different countries, explore ways to improve campaigning, and break down boundaries that prevent people with learning disabilities from participating and being fully included in society.

"It appears that we as a society are too quick to trumpet our successes and pat ourselves on the back even though we are nowhere near to full inclusion and participation".

How inclusive is "inclusive" living?

The conference was full of attendees, mostly Israeli with some international delegates. To me, one of the event’s most poignant sessions was titled ‘Everyone has the Right to be Included in the Community; How to Turn our Vision into Reality’.

The conversation focused on inclusive living and how to start the process of moving people from institutional settings to living in the community. We were glad to see that this agenda is catching on internationally but were also disappointed that most of the speakers were still using the word “institutions” in a positive light. The institutions mentioned varied from care homes to so-called “supported living” services. It all seemed rather outdated to me, especially for a conference centred on community inclusion and ways out of social isolation for people with learning disabilities.

We were glad to see the Inclusion International Executive Director Connie Laurin-Bowie wade into the debate with a brilliant speech about her belief that institutions should not exist and that any form of non-inclusive living is in fact institutionalisation. What’s more, her putting the onus on societies to adapt to include people with learning disabilities rather than pushing people with learning disabilities to adapt to themselves to society put a positive message across fantastically.

Gideon Shalom from Israel’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Service who chaired the session put a dampener on proceedings by taking to the podium after Connie’s speech, controversially saying he wanted to make it clear that AKIM is not against institutional settings. This set the tone for the first day - some good progress on inclusion issues but still plenty of powerful obstacles to overcome.

Making justice accessible 

The second day also had its fair share of highs and lows. We were pleased to see often taboo topics being discussed and were very impressed with a workshop titled '#MeToo - Making Justice Accessible' that dealt with the concept of sexual consent and navigating the legal system for people with a learning disability.

Let’s not forget, campaigning for inclusion is campaigning for civil and human rights, and the right to consent and to access justice is at the heart of this battle. Speakers discussed several tragic case studies where sexual assault victims with learning disabilities were misinformed about the concept of consent and when questioned in the courts were unable to give the testimony required to convict someone.

As a result of these issues I was pleased to learn during the workshop that there is now learning disability training being conducted with judges in Israel. This enables them to get a better understanding of how people with learning disabilities feel when questioned at court. This training has helped develop more suitable language for when victims or perpetrators with learning disabilities are questioned in front of a judge.

There is still more to do

It was also encouraging to see Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in attendance at the conference among other high-profile individuals. It has also been positive to see other political leaders elsewhere starting to take a greater interest in learning disability issues; the UK's most recent General Election saw all three major parties mentioning learning disability issues in their manifestos. Conference delegates were generally very interested and curious about how learning disability inclusion is promoted and enacted in Britain.

However, I found the conference lacked self-advocates with learning disabilities who could have shared their own perspectives and advised other attending groups and individuals. What’s more, many of the stories we heard were hardly what I would consider empowering citizens with learning disabilities.

On reflection, it appears that we as a society are too quick to trumpet our successes and pat ourselves on the back even though we are nowhere near to full inclusion and participation. I believe these conferences should continue to take place internationally and I applaud AKIM for having taken such a big initiative to make this happen.

What we can learn is that the road to inclusion and belonging is still long and we are not even halfway near our destination. On the journey to an international understanding and practice of what these words really mean we fight cultural boundaries and definitions.

There is still plenty to do in 2020.