“Greek Current” Podcast with SAIDR Minkara: Advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in Greece and the U.S.

Sara Minkara, Special Envoy for International Disability Rights

Special Advisor on International Disability Rights Sara Minkara on The Greek Current Podcast:
“Advancing the rights of persons with disabilities in Greece and the U.S.”
Recorded: September 9, 2023, 9am Eastern Time 

Thanos Davelis: Welcome to the Greek Current, a podcast by HALC and Kathimerini. I’m your host, Thanos Davelis.  

As the U.S.-Greece partnership reaches new heights, it’s also touching on all aspects of both societies and one of the areas where the U.S. and Greece are working together is to advance the rights of persons with disabilities. This was the focus of U.S. Special Advisor Sara Minkara’s latest trip to Thessaloniki. SaraSaraara, the U.S. Special Adviser on International Disability Rights, and Chrysella Lagaria, the co-founder and CEO of Blacklight, a social cooperative enterprise with a mission to improve the daily lives of people with visual impairments and act as a major stakeholder for their work integration, join me to discuss the importance of advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities, looking at the key challenges Greece still faces and explore whether the two countries can work together to achieve the goal of full inclusion and empowerment. Special Advisor Minkara, Chrysella, it’s great to have you on the Greek Current. Thanks for joining. 

Sara Minkara: Thanos is so wonderful to be here with you and as well with Chrysella. I’m looking forward to the conversation. Thank you.

Chrysella Lagaria: Hello. Thanks for having me also here to this great podcast and I’m very happy to be here again with Sara. 

Thanos Davelis: Special Advisor Minkara, I’d like to start with you. Whether in Greece or other countries around the world, you’ve worked to put the full empowerment and inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society front and center. Why is it important that these issues become a part of not only the U.S.-Greece bilateral relationship, but of U.S. foreign policy more broadly? 

Sara Minkara: That’s a really good question, Thanos. I mean, we are working towards, as a State Department and as U.S. government towards global peace, security, prosperity, and we as a global community cannot achieve peace, prosperity and security if we don’t include everyone in that conversation, if we don’t bring everyone to that table and part of that community and the global community is the disability community, which are 16% of the world’s population. That’s 1.3 billion individuals in this world with a disability. And I always talk about it within our foreign policy context, it’s not just a human rights issue, it’s not just the right thing to do, but when you exclude 16% of the world’s population, you’re hurting your GDP. You’re not tapping into the disposable income that we can bring to the table. You’re not tapping into the innovation and the value that we can bring to the climate conversation, the AI conversation. We as a society are losing out, so let’s make sure we are bringing the disability perspective into this dialogue. 

Thanos Davelis: Chrysella, you’ve worked extensively on these issues in Greece, whether it’s with the public or the private sector. What are some of the key challenges and where do you see Greece making strides in the right direction? 

Chrysella Lagaria: Okay. You know, in Greece, we are going back and forth in many issues, and disability is one of those. Actually, talking about disability for the last years and blindness also is something that Greece, I could say, make steps. I mean, bringing this topic to the discussion, to the public discussion, we’re talking more than ever about disability issues, we’re talking more than ever about the need to make an inclusive place for all of us in Greece, but we have things that we really suffer from. One of them is bureaucracy, because talking about giving disabled people the opportunity to be equal, we should talk also about giving them the opportunity to have a job so they could live in a more independent life; and that does not happen in Greece a lot as it should, because even though there are opportunities for businesses to hire disabled people, they have to fight with bureaucracy, they have to fight with difficulties. So they would come up and say, oh, no, thank you. I know I should include disabled people, but it’s not going to be me the one who will fight against those and do it. So I think that it’s good that also technology and social media brought disabled people to everyone’s everyday life. So there’s much more information about disabled people, which is known in Greece this years than the past, but we have a lot of work to do. 

Thanos Davelis: Speaking of this work, Sara, you were in Greece earlier this year speaking at the Delphi Economic Forum and are now back in Greece once again in Thessaloniki. Where do you see the biggest window of opportunity for the U.S. and Greece to cooperate and are there any success stories that you can highlight for us? 

Sara Minkara: It’s a really good question. Yeah, we were in Greece for the Delphi Economic Forum and then we came back for TIF. And you know, Thursday night when we came here, I participated in an AI panel, and ultimately what’s beautiful about both of our trips here to Greece is there is interest and there is opportunity to mainstream and further mainstream disability into these different topics. When we’re at the Delphi Economic Forum, we had an inclusive education panel, we had a panel on climate action and sustainable solution and then AI this time around and ultimately, the whole point in all of this is that in all of these different topics, it’s important that disabilities mainstream. Let’s take, AI for example, right? If we don’t integrate disability and accessibility into the AI conversation, we are further marginalizing persons with disability. But on the other hand, when we do integrate disability and accessibility into the conversation, we’re benefiting everyone. We had really also great conversation from the private sector this time around, both Deloitte and AmCham and then we also had great conversations with Anatolia, the president of Anatolia College and Schools and ultimately there is interest and there is this desire and to do more on disability inclusion. The question is how? How do we do it? And this is where it’s so important for us to share best practices, good practices and promising practices not only from the U.S. We do have 50 years of experience and a journey on inclusion, things that we’ve done well, things that we’re still working on, but then also the practices that I’ve come across during my travels of the 25 countries I’ve been so far in this role, because there’s great examples of people that are doing it or doing it well and examples of people wanting to do more. So I think the ultimate goal is first getting the culture, the community, the society, the system to see the value of our inclusion. It’s not just the right thing to do. Second is then the how. And how do we really showcase that? And then the third is how do we build that capacity? 

Thanos Davelis: Chrysella, looking from Greece toward the U.S., what do you see as some best practices or areas of expertise that Greece can look to potentially implement at home? 

Chrysella Lagaria: Yeah, there is a lot of potential things for us here in Greece. What I really admire about U.S. is that they understand disability within a more holistic approach. I mean, a disabled person needs to work, to have fun, to be independent, to be responsible for others, to grow or to not grow children, to be an equal individual in society. And what do I really love is that they really see a more holistic approach so that they understand that there are a lot of things to do here in Greece, because nothing really works very, very properly in how the decision is made. That’s why you can see things happening, but they do not last for long or maybe something that works best for blind people does not work the same for deaf people and etcetera. The other thing I really love is that the community of disabled people in U.S. should teach us great lessons because they really — of course we’re talking about millions of people — but they really fight a lot for their rights and they do it within a way that also the government and the business should understand it and take the chance. And of course, as Sara mentioned before, we have great examples of really fantastic use of AI, like applications like the Be My Eyes, which is launching the Be My AI functionality, which really will help the lives of blind people. So we have to learn from this, we have to learn from them. 

Thanos Davelis: Wrapping up, I’d like to give you both the floor. You know, it’s no secret that governments have a key role to play here, but it’s also up to citizens to press for changes. With this in mind, is there a message that you would like to leave our listeners with, whether in Greece or around the world? And since we were just chatting, Chrysella, I’ll give you the first stab at this question. 

Chrysella Lagaria: Thank you. Sara said it before, we are the 16% of population, so this should not be ignored either from governments or from society. And talking about society, I would also send a message to disabled people that whatever the others should change and should include, we are the ones who know better what it’s need to be done and we have to go out and do it ourselves more than everyone else. 

Thanos Davelis: Sara, same question. 

Sara Minkara: So I mean, like you said, it’s important for governments to keep building the right policies and legislations, and those are really, really integral. But who implements the policies of society? It’s us, as individuals, as a community. And until we get to a point where society says we demand the inclusion of persons with disability, we’re still going to see a lot of gap[s] in implementation of our policies. So how do we get society and systems to be demanding our inclusion? One is we need to be having more of these difficult conversations. Let’s be real. If you go ask any society until now, we’re still seen from a point of pity and a charity and less-than. Accessibility is seen as an add-on, as a special thing. We are not an add-on. We are valuable members of society. We need to have those difficult conversations and make sure we’re addressing those narratives. Then we need to be able to create shared responsibility that every single person in our community has a responsibility to take forward disability inclusion. It’s not if you have a family member with a disability or a person with a disability, disability touches every single one of us because again, we bring so much contribution to the system. And then the last part is then how do we help each other build the capacity towards disability inclusion? I just want to end with one phrase. In the disability world, there’s a phrase called “nothing about us without us”, which is so important. Don’t ever develop policies and programs about us without including us at the table. But let’s take it a step further and let’s say “nothing without us,” nothing without the disability community in any topic, any issue. So if you’re anything that anyone that’s listening, anything that you’re doing, think about how disability can be a part of your work. Thank you. 

Thanos Davelis: Special Advisor. Minkara, Chrysella, it’s been great speaking with you. Thanks for joining us. 

Sara Minkara: Thank you. 

Chrysella Lagaria: Thank you. 

Link to Podcast: https://thegreekcurrent.simplecast.com/episodes/advancing-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-in-greece-and-the-us