“With its inclusive projects in the fields of work, leisure and education, Blindspot - inlcusion and diversity Switzerland - empowers people with and without disabilities and with a social impairment to participate actively and self-sufficient in everyday life. Blindspot aims to change existing structures and ways of doing, working in partnership with institutions at a local, regional and national level, such as the Swiss Federal Office for Sports, motivating them to adopt an inclusive approach in their work. Jonas' vision is a society where inclusion is lived implicitly in every setting.”
The New Idea
Jonas is creating a culture of inclusion of people with disabilities by taking inclusion efforts out of the realm of social workers and specialists and showing inclusion for what it ultimately is – an easy, natural process that everyone can engage in. Before and since the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, there have been numerous efforts globally at integration of people with disabilities, from previously separate systems for goods such as education to integrated systems serving both people with and without disabilities together. Increasingly, there has also been a push toward adopting inclusion, rather than integration, as the goal, to ensure people with disabilities have the opportunity for full participation in society. But as inclusion has become a buzzword in the field, it has been academicized, remaining the realm of specialists, experts, and social workers. Jonas is changing this.
Switzerland, having developed a very good separate system for people with disabilities, was slow to prioritize integration, ratifying the UN Convention only in 2014. Ten years prior, and two years even before the first countries ratified it, Jonas started Blindspot, the first organization in Switzerland actively working in the field of inclusion of children and people with disabilities. Having started its work by bringing children with and without disabilities together through sport, Blindspot is now positioned as a leader in the field and innovating several new efforts to reach beyond children to drive a broader societal shift toward a culture of inclusion.
Jonas’s approach in all Blindspot’s initiatives is to remove social workers from the equation, running best-in-class programs attractive to people with and without disabilities alike. With these programs, Blindspot models what is possible and then works with institutional players to adopt the approach. Jonas has done this with sports camps for young people, which have been adopted by other camps across the country, as well as in schools, and he is now addressing inclusion in the workplace as well. Jonas has pioneered the concept of inclusion within Switzerland, and aims to change the systems and perceptions of people with disabilities by breaking down barriers within society and pushing a culture of inclusion rather than separation or even integration. Blindspot is now accelerating their vision of mainstreaming inclusion within and beyond Switzerland.
In Switzerland and throughout Europe, children with disabilities are often cared for and educated through separate systems and generally alienated from society. Many countries, including Switzerland, have separate schools for disabled students, sheltered workshops, homes, and separate extracurricular activities. Increasingly, schools are integrating students with disabilities, but many schools in Switzerland still suggest sending a child with a disability to a specialized school rather than to a regular school. There also exist separate extracurricular activities for children with and without disabilities. For example, children’s Scout troops are organized separately, with children with disabilities grouped together in their own troop. Additionally, very few solutions exist for people with disabilities entering the typical labor market, and if there is a solution, it often only applies to people with a specific disability.
Due to separate education systems, extracurricular activities and labor markets, there is little to no opportunity for contact between people with and without disabilities. Continuing with this trend, the proven methods to expand the education for teachers, employers, and specialists in the inclusion of disabled people in society are rarely utilized. Therefore, schools and businesses that actually have the capacity to include disabled individuals in their institutions hold the perception that they don’t. Another quite surprising problem is that some organizations in Switzerland that advocate for people with disabilities are often against inclusion because they fear that inclusion would threaten their purpose and existence. Due to all these problems, even though Switzerland ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which advocates for inclusion, implementation of this mentality and structure has been slow to develop. Furthermore, this issue is not just contained to Switzerland, as the structures in many countries across Europe also have placed divides between the general populations and people with disabilities. Blindspot’s inclusive models seek to not just rejuvenate the failing systems in Switzerland, but to also address the persistent societal rifts across Europe.
Blindspot aims to create interactions that stimulate inclusion in the lives of participants, their families and beyond, to ultimately trigger a societal change on a wide level. Jonas creates attractive and innovative services, so that customers and organizational partners are attracted not out of pity for people with disabilities, but because the range of services and opportunities are innovative, cool, and creative. This not only empowers children and young people with disabilities, but also connects people that aren’t in regular contact with disabled people, thereby compelling people without disabilities to view those with disabilities as equals. Jonas believes that inclusion is not just an achievable, positive goal for society, but that it can also be made fun, holistic, and much easier than what is believed. After all, everyone, in different ways, seeks to be accepted and included. Blindspot models these opportunities, supports partners to do it on their own, and advocates for broader adoption.
Jonas’s activities started with organizing winter and summer camps that both children with and without disabilities can attend. Jonas built partnerships both to make the camps feasible and to make them attractive. For instance, for the winter skiing and snowboarding camp, he partnered with one of the most popular ski resorts in Switzerland, where other youth ski camps didn’t go due to the high expense. And Jonas always engages high quality instructors, without social work backgrounds, just serious about their craft. For instance, when the young people learn hip hop and street dance, they are being taught by professional street dance teachers. Young people with and without disabilities come to the camps where participants see that inclusion works, and their empathy and inclusive tendencies are developed with immediate results. From the first camps Jonas held, participants with and without disabilities immediately began going out together in the evenings and socializing outside the camp activities, unscheduled and without Jonas. No social worker was required. On the one hand, children and adolescents make new friends, both with and without disabilities. On the other hand, partner organizations are motivated to open themselves to inclusion. Blindspot now only holds a couple of camps a year themselves because the model has been copied at over 200 youth camps across the country.
In a similar fashion, Jonas then started partnering with local sports clubs to host joint sports days for children with and without disabilities, a concept he also started integrating into schools. When Blindspot began this work, schools for students with disabilities in Switzerland were fully separate from mainstream schools, and the students did not interact. For the joint sports days, he invites local sports clubs to open to inclusion, with students from the mainstream and specialized schools coming together to try out different sports. Not only do the schools and the children come into contact, but local sports clubs reach more potential members and are also invited to include children with disabilities. This began to then open up opportunities in schools themselves. For example, in Lucerne, one schoolyard was shared by two adjacent schools—one mainstream school and one for students with disabilities. The schools intentionally used the yard at separate times for the students with disabilities and those without, so Jonas began working with them to organize a joint sports day to see how easy and beneficial it was to give the students the opportunity to play together. This opened the door to the schools working together in other ways as well. As schools in Switzerland are now beginning to integrate, Jonas is helping them see also the opportunities for inclusion through inclusive physical education as a starting point. In such situations Jonas allows the schools to subsequently adopt a more inclusive strategy. These events also raise awareness of inclusion as an achievable, yet not widely acknowledged goal for society, which therefore supports itself and spills over into the public forum of discussion about inclusion beyond physical education. He works with 40 schools in 5 districts across the country in this way, while also working to advance systemic changes at the district level. In Basel, for instance, the school district’s sports department has now determined that all sports work in the district has to be open to people with disabilities. Other districts are starting to come see what Basel is doing to try to replicate.
With his youth approach being adopted by camps and schools, Jonas has continued to address other opportunities for inclusion. Over a year and a half ago, to begin to address inclusion in the workplace, he opened Provisorium46, an inclusive restaurant where the staff consists of both people with and without disabilities. Like the youth camps and joint sports days, the restaurant does not employ social workers and serves as a model for workplace inclusion. Jonas hosts companies there to see what is possible. As a result of this effort, he is now collaborating with companies on workplace inclusion strategies. Recently, they started a program with PepsiCo and their European diversity managers on how to attract people with different talents and create more diverse teams. He is also beginning work on an inclusive independent living project and identifying other gaps for people with disabilities where Blindspot could model a new approach. For instance, the work on the restaurant revealed a gap in the job market, primarily that the job market for mainstream jobs is effectively not open to people with disabilities. So Jonas is looking at partnering with work associations to address this challenge.
Apart from creating points of contact for people with and without disabilities, Jonas also addresses the issue on an institutional level, involving many different stakeholders. In Switzerland, there are many governmental and non-governmental organizations, institutions, and programs concerned with the needs and matters of children. Normally such institutions only deal with either children with or without disabilities. However, through Blindspot’s "Inklusion macht Schule" (a wordplay meaning “inclusion catches on”), Jonas connects these programs, institutions and organizations to create a network and to realize inclusive projects that later spill over into other communities and institutions. He also offers guidance to sports organizations, showing them how to set up inclusive sports programs. And he speaks at conferences and legislatures to maintain inclusion as a widely discussed topic, offering guidance and experience through Blindspot.
Jonas is also going beyond schools and institutions, working to change the role of social workers. He currently works with four different universities and social schools in Switzerland and Germany to focus on training their students on working inclusively.
Lastly, in order to spread its work more efficiently within and beyond Switzerland, Blindspot is currently developing a set of specialized toolkits to assist in the dissemination of knowledge and replication of the effective models that Jonas has already implemented in Switzerland.
From an early age, Jonas proved to have a strong sense for justice, often getting into trouble for defending other children from bullies, but with questionable methods, such as getting into fights or challenging authorities for not intervening or not believing him. Usually, seeing that authority figures didn’t always agree with him motivated him even more to continue fighting injustice. Especially during his youth, he felt very inspired by his father, who worked with juvenile delinquents in his gardening business. He always felt that there was something rather uncommon about the way his father treated these young people.
At age 16, Jonas traveled to England and Geneva to gain language skills and volunteer in institutions for people with disabilities. After returning home and finishing school, Jonas pursued an apprenticeship as a gardener, following in his father’s footsteps. However, he quickly realized that this profession wasn’t fulfilling enough for him. He returned to Geneva and to working in institutions for people with disabilities. After three years of working in the field without the proper education, he decided to enter social work school. Through these years, he worked with many different types of people deemed in need of special education and institutions, from people with sensory disabilities, to children with mental and physical disabilities, to juvenile addicts.
While working in several institutions during his studies, he started to develop doubts about the way the system worked. One day, while working in a home for children, he started an experiment. Instead of approaching the children to direct activities, Jonas just sat in the living room reading the newspaper, thereby doing something parents would do at home too. This had two interesting effects. On the one hand, the children seemed calmer, and after a short period of confusion, they started to entertain themselves or approach Jonas to talk to him. On the other hand, it upset his boss, who insisted he go back to “doing things the proper way.” He realized through this experience that the social workers thought that they were the center of the system. He began to think back to his experiences in the UK and Geneva and realized it had been the same. People with disabilities are always told what to do. Jonas had a period of crisis, feeling that he couldn't carry on working in the sector due to the lack of positive impact it had on the people who supposedly benefited from it. He almost dropped out of social work school but instead stayed and started questioning and challenging everything.
After an experience in which, when an issue arose with a 15-year-old he worked with, Jonas’s colleagues called meetings with everyone except the young person himself, Jonas realized we needed a system where people with disabilities did not have to be so dependent on social workers. He felt strongly that this would be possible if only we didn’t separate people with disabilities from those without. On that insight, he founded Blindspot in 2004 and has been a pioneer for authentic inclusion ever since.