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Disabled and non-disabled people find common interests in new initiative
If you are not disabled, do you know anyone who is? This is a question posted by Hart voor Handicap, a Flemish organisation that has launched a unique initiative to encourage friendships among people living with a disability and those who do not.
Circuit Sortie was originally launched to pair up the physically and developmentally challenged with people outside of that community to go to music festivals. The idea was to help people with disabilities enjoy the best of what Belgium has to offer every summer and to get them mingling with a larger social circle.
Then the coronavirus hit, and summer music festivals were off the agenda. So Hart voor Handicap developed another system – a platform where people post a place they want to visit, and people sign on to go along with them.
While there have been great strides in opening up the world to people with disabilities, it has come with a drawback: Separatism. Hart voor Handicap “is focused on inclusion,” explains Kristel Gevaert, co-director of the organisation.
“There are a lot of systems and structures that separate people with disabilities from the rest of society,” she says. “They live in group homes, they work in specific places, they have their own sport teams. This is why people without disabilities don’t even know people with disabilities anymore. They don’t see them, they don’t meet them. And so we want to bring those people back together.”
This is beneficial to everyone, she says. “People are afraid of people with disabilities because they think, how should I act? Can I talk to them? It doesn’t feel normal anymore. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”
The system is simple. On the Circuit Sortie website, anyone – disabled or not – can post a place they want to go to or activity they want to take part in. Anyone who wants to go with them can respond. It can even turn into a group activity if several people want to go.
The only requirement is that one of them should be disabled and the other non-disabled, or if a group, a mixed group. Gevaert: “If you want to go to the sea, and someone with a disability wants to go to the sea, too, then why not go together?”
Posts vary greatly, from people who want to go swimming to those who want to take a day trip to Bruges. Right now on the site, for instance, you’ll find that 18-year-old Ciandro wants to go to a skate park in West Flanders – hopefully with someone who can teach him some tricks – while the 50-something Kristel is happy to accompany someone who is visually impaired to the indoor ski slope in Limburg.
Other people just want to go for a walk or a bike ride in the countryside. There are also many requests to simply go have a drink or a meal once restaurants and bars are open again.
Gevaert emphasises that it’s not so much about it being difficult for someone with a disability to do these things as it is about the social aspect. “People with a disability can be isolated,” she explains. “There are people living in an institution or who are living alone who don’t know many people besides their caregivers or their parents. It is always the same people who take care of them or do things with them. Caregivers often don’t have the time. So through us, they can make plans with other people. They get to know new people, and they make new friends.”
Things are slowed up by the pandemic of course, but still, since the launch nine months ago, Circuit Sortie has made some 350 matches. Hart voor Handicap vets the non-disabled people a bit, looking at their profiles on the site and monitoring messages sent through the site. “Sometimes we intervene with a message to ask something or provide information,” explains Gevaert.
And if someone who is disabled never gets a response to their post, Circuit Sortie turns to its network of contacts and volunteers to see if they can find a match themselves.
People who are not disabled might be hesitant to sign on to such an initiative because they don’t know what kind of assistance someone might need. Any assistance, explains Gevaert, “depends on where they live and where they want to visit. This can all be discussed ahead of time. But the focus is not on providing help, it’s on having the same interests.”
Of course people can be worried, which she understands. “If they’ve never been anywhere with someone in a wheelchair, they might question what they have to do. But once they do it, they always say: ‘Oh, that was easy. If he needed something, he told me, and we took it from there. It was as easy as that’.”
While Dutch is the working language of Circuit Sortie, Gevaert says if someone wants to post an activity and say that they speak English or French, they should go right ahead. The initiative enriches the lives of the non-disabled as well, she says. “Almost all of the participants tell us afterwards how rewarding it was to discover how people with disabilities live their lives.”
Photos courtesy Circuit Sortie