social cohesion & integration
“Comme Les Autres”: Deconstructing prejudices and encouraging resilience
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Through individual support as well as collective experiences, through mentoring and inspiration induced by extra-ordinary experiences, the association Comme les Autres supports people in their reconstruction path and contributes to breaking taboos and changing the way able-bodied people see disabled ones. “Adrenaline shot”, “launchpad”, “electroshock” are some of the words used by the participants of the trips organised by the association Comme les Autres (Like the Others) which combine dynamic outdoor activities with extreme sensations. These trips have proven their positive impact on the life of people with disabilities as much as on able-bodied participants! The action of the non-profit organisation Comme les Autres (CLA) is inspired by the personal experience of Michaël Jeremiasz and his brother Jonathan Jérémiasz who had witnessed his accident. All together with his brother and his wife, the paraplegic Olympic tennis champion decided to share his experience and support people who have become physically disabled after an accident.
A “wonderful misfortune”
Michaël Jérémiasz started playing tennis at the age of 5 and managed to excel in this sport. In 2000, Michaël became paraplegic after a skiing accident. After 9 months of rehabilitation and hard work in the hopes of playing tennis again, he decided to return as a wheelchair tennis player. Michaël began his career in 2001 and showed hunger for victory. He became the world’s No. 1 in doubles the following year after obtaining a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Athens. Then champion of France, he won the gold medal with his doubles partner Stéphane Houdet in Beijing. In 2016, he was the flag bearer of the French delegation at the Rio Paralympic Games. In parallel, he studied literature and politics. In addition to Comme les Autres, he created Handiamo!, an association dedicated to accompanying elite disabled athletes and running their careers, as well as developing sports events and conferences to raise awareness on disability. He founded his own consultancy company which works especially on the access of disabled people to the business world. Quoting the French neurologist and psychiatric doctor, Boris Cyrulnik, who developed the concept of psychologist resilience, Michaël refers to his accident and the rebound that followed as a “wonderful misfortune”.
To rebound, rebuild and change visions
Becoming a disabled person does not only impact your physical state but also deeply affects your social life. More than others, the disabled suffer from isolation, precariousness, health fragility, lack of self-esteem, and unemployment. Comme les Autres aims at helping people who have become disabled after a life accident by offering them a comprehensive social support boosted by sports as well as thrills and intense emotions. In addition, the association contributes to breaking the frontier between abled and disabled and change the way both worlds look at each other and interact with each other. As Michaël Jérémiasz explains, “We do our best to reconcile them with their bodies, with themselves, and with others.”
Like the others with the others
Comme les Autres (Like the Others) could also be named Avec les Autres (With the Others) as none of the activities proposed leave the participant on his own. All instruments are based on the relationship that is created between able-bodied and disabled, between people with disabilities and social workers or volunteers and between “newly” disabled and “more experienced” disabled. It is in the relation with the other – and above all with a different other – that the process of rebound is initiated and consolidated and that contributes to changes in vision. Each participant has the potential to become the other’s role model.
The actions of the association consist in three main “tools”:
Inspirational trips with high-intensity sport experiences
This experience is beneficial for the disabled people who are offered the opportunity to be “like the others” by practicing high-level intensity winter and summer sports such as skiing, paragliding, rafting, ultra-light motorized plane, kayaking, diving, sliding, etc. This experience is also beneficial for the valid people who realise that differences are not that big and that distances can be easily reduced between these two worlds. Both valid and disabled become inspirational in the others’ eyes, through what they achieve. This trip is considered as the first phase of the psychological rebound, which is necessary to engage in a longer process of change.
“This trip with Comme les Autres has made me feel confident and has reopened the field of possibilities. (…) After that, I felt motivated to do more wheelchair basketball. I am also much more confident at Qwan Ki Do, a Vietnamese combat sport because the way people look at me is not anymore an issue”, Céline, disabled participant.
Inclusive local collective activities
On a regular basis, to create bounds and strengthen the social fabric and integration and aim at integrating people who are usually subject to isolation. The regional antennas of the association organise socio-cultural activities such as exhibition visits, sport practice, improvisational theatre, make-up workshops, to work on confidence and self-esteem. The association also partners with other structures such as a refugees’ organisation and a prison for joint activities.
Together with social workers, people who benefit from the support of the association build their individual and customized objectives. This support last for around a year and take into account all life dimensions: housing, mobility, financial support, mental and physical health, social life, work etc.
Change in vision, autonomy and empowerment
Thanks to an independent impact study conducted in 2017, the association validated the results of its activities and has been continuously improving the support provided to a targeted audience since some key findings confirm the approach chosen by the association.
Diversity is key. It’s about mixing all types of public: able-bodied and disabled people, people with little experience with disabilities and people able to mentor “newly” disabled people.
The change in vision is an essential first step to undertake a personal path towards more autonomy and self-confidence. It is what will allow the psychologic rebound process to start. Thanks to the trip, disabled people realise that they are able to achieve amazing things that “others” do, they can gain autonomy, and prove to themselves and others that a world of possibilities is open to them. They also realise that they can do things that seem normal or simple for people with no disabilities and which they thought were out of reach. For instance, these trips have a substantial leverage effect on the idea and potential of going on holiday, which is a social need more than a luxury good. Mobility is at stake and leaving home can become complicated and scary for disabled people. French statistics show that one out of four disabled people don’t go on holiday, compared to one out of ten abled. Comme les Autres induces a change in vision, provides an opportunity to overcome fears and has long-lasting positive effects on behaviours.
“I’m no longer ashamed, I’ve stopped worrying about how people look at me. Then, I make a better use of my wheelchair and I move more easily. above all, I received a big boost of confidence. This stay was a turning point in the reconquest of my autonomy and my social life”, Maïlys, disabled participant.
Breaking with isolation and empowering disabled people are key achievements. As the approach of the association is comprehensive and includes a mixed ability participation in its actions, it also impacts their lives and vision on disability. Within participants, the rate of people involved in a solidarity project increases substantially after their experience. Prejudices and fears nearly unanimously decrease, and they feel more concerned about disability both in their personal life and at work.
It is more than bridges between two worlds that Comme les Autres builds. Through its work, the association manages to operate a change of mindset of both non-disabled and disabled and a change in vision on themselves as well as on others. And it shows that anyone can become the other’s role model!
Since 2011, the association achieved the following:
- 500 people with physical disabilities supported
- + 100 new people with physical disabilities supported every year
- +100 mixed sport and adventure trips organised
- +100 volunteers engaged with the association
- +80% of the participants assess that the support of the association has helped them to recover self-confidence
- 75% of the participants have overridden their fears related to daily mobility and transportation
- 90% of able-bodied participants acknowledge their perception of disabled people has changed after joining collective activities organised by Comme les Autres
three questions for michaël jérémiasz, paralympic medallist and founder of comme les autres
1. WHAT IS THE PLACE GIVEN TO “THE OTHERS” IN YOUR OWN REBUILDING PROCESS? WHY ARE THEY SO IMPORTANT TO ALLOW A REBOUND?
I quickly realised that you can’t rebuild yourself alone. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by caring and loving people (parents, brothers, friends, etc). Twenty years ago when I became paraplegic I had no idea what kind of life disabled people had. As we were an invisible minority.
You face so many obstacles. You have to rebuild from scratch while facing your worse fears and pains. When I was at my lowest, they kept on pushing me, they kept supporting me to face this new life.
2. AS AN ELITE ATHLETE, WHERE DO YOU FIND YOUR MOTIVATION, YOUR FUEL, AND WHICH ROLE MODELS HAVE YOU BEEN INSPIRED BY?
As an elite athlete, I have always been very ambitious. I always aimed to improve each day, get better, and always worked harder to rediscover my limits. I have been pushed all along my career inspired by some amazing coaches and physical trainers.
3. AS AN ELITE ATHLETE, YOU ARE NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF THE MAJORITY OF DISABLED (NOR OF NON-DISABLED!) PEOPLE. WHAT IS YOUR VISION ON DISABILITY AND HOW CAN YOU BE INSPIRATIONAL FOR THE MAJORITY?
The reality for disabled people in the world is much more complicated than my reality.
I realised that I was belonging to the most discriminated minority in my country. Life is much harder for disabled people when it comes to finding a job, a house, healthcare or to access sports, culture etc. I find that obviously very unfair and unacceptable in a modern world.
I don’t know if I am inspirational or not, but my duty, as a privileged human being, is to use all my power to allow this minority to have a better life and all the right it deserves.