Patrick Segal



Patrick Segal was born in Epernay, in the Champagne region, in 1947. From early childhood he showed a keen interest in sports, including track and field, skiing, rugby, and martial arts, even earning a black belt in karate.

Following a shooting accident in April 1972 he ended his studies and went to live in China for a year. In spite of the accident, he was undaunted. From 1974 to 1976 he went on a trip around the world in a wheelchair.  This experience is recounted in his book The Man Walked in His Head,  which has been translated into ten languages and won France’s newspaper publishers prize. In 1976 he crossed the Atlantic on Father Jaouen’s sailing boat and worked as a photographer at the Olympic Games in Montreal and at the Paralympics in Toronto. (His work was displayed at FNAC, a large chain bookstore in France, and the Pompidou Center.) He eventually joined the French Disabled Sports team and participated in two European championships, one world championship, and the Paralympics Games in Seoul in 1988.

In 1980 he completed his first feature-length film on the Paralympics Games,  Sunny Night,  nominated at the Cannes film festival, as well as for an Oscar, in 1981. In 1985 he made a documentary for the show Résistance, on the French TV network France 2 entitled  Comrade, Where Are You ?, which highlighted the conditions of disabled persons who were deported to the Gulag in the U.S.S.R.

Patrick Segal wanted to go beyond his brilliant sports career. He felt the need for a deeper commitment to humanitarian causes and, specifically, to those of handicapped persons. From 1976 to 1977 he participated in a Doctors Without Borders mission to Lebanon. In 1979 he went on an expedition to the Himalayas (Ama Dablam).

In 1983 he became vice president of Handicap International (an NGO that was the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1996). He participated in other missions to Cambodia, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Senegal, the West Bank and Gaza. It therefore comes as no surprise that he became Adjunct to the Mayor of Paris followed by Interministerial Delegate for handicapped persons (1995-2002).  He is currently Inspector General of Social Affairs.




1. Man Faced with the Reality of Disability

In looking back at the different steps of my life, I have arrived at the conclusion that every man is in search of a mountain to climb, a narrow gate to get through, and that a disability compels us to heroism. Far from believing myself  to  be diminished, I feel finally liberated, as if the yoke of conventions and social determinisms have, along with the disability, faded away, ceding their place to the most deeply rooted dreams of the imagination. Benefiting greatly from my upbringing, education, and reading of books, I set off on the path of Kessel, Malraux, Tintin, Norman Béthune, and Saint-Exupéry. At last free of useless things, I explored the planet, crossed desert countries and deep forests in search of my truth. The disability, this little death that so frightens society, gave me the immense opportunity to become a lay missionary. What greater adventure can there be than guiding people along the steep paths of life? The strength of the paradox lies in the seeming fragility of those who are wrongly labeled "handicapped,” but who are able to get the most out of what life offers every day. As Primo Levi has written, every day is a gift when you're lucky enough to belong to the race of survivors.  By sitting in my wheelchair I began to grow, and wouldn't that have been the very lesson my parents and teachers would have wanted to teach me? Today, after all these battles, which were never in vain, I appreciate how much man is made for fighting against the unacceptable and inspiring others to do the same.  Without the disability, my life would have doubtless been theoretical and incomplete, like an invisible mountain that didn't exist.

I am convinced that even if everything remains difficult, all things can still be accomplished.


2. Which Policy Is Best for Persons with disabilities ?

« There is no greater mistreatment than to be taken for someone you are not. » These are the very words I addressed to the Senators to explain to them how much misperception there is about those with disabilities. To define the other, to evaluate them according to what they cannot do or can no longer do is the greatest of the wrongs committed against the disabled. This comes to some extent from the word « handicap, » coming from the English phrase « hand in cap, » suggesting the notion of a lottery. The term « responses to specific needs » corresponds better to the diversity of handicapped persons. There is nothing in common among physical, mental, or sensory deficiencies, and yet we group those afflicted as such together in the same category. Strengthened by my situation as a person with a disability, I have forced myself through the writing of these books to provide a language for those wishing to be appreciated for their capabilities and not for their deficiencies. By displaying the exploits of the athletes at the Paralympics Games I wanted to illustrate my words and give back to my companions from emerging nations a reason to feel as if they’re all involved in the same fight. Communicating is necessary, but creating the tools is certainly more basic, since the person is included only to the extent that the social fabric is prepared to do so. I use the word « included » because it is in opposition to the word « excluded, » and corresponds better to the idea of social cohesion. The disabled person is an inherent part of the whole, and anything done for the individual person is done to the profit of all. It’s a very strange thing that no official report takes into account the economic contribution generated by the creation of jobs, technical assistance, modifications to public transportation and housing for the benefit of persons with disabilities. Everything confers our existence to the debit column with barely a thought, as if we weren’t, in fact, what we are: added value. If we look at the European policies that have the goal of taking action on behalf of persons with disabilities, we see only the gap between our system, which is still protective, and that of our European neighbors to the north and of the North Americans, which is more centered on advocacy. To this I add the fact that our educational system favors special education rather than mainstream learning, with teacher aides participating in the process as in Italy.

Having been an adviser for different ministries as well as for the President of the Republic, I can evaluate how much the implementation of tools of every kind can contribute to the emergence of our full citizenship. Legislation puts a framework in place but it remains the task of either the centralized or decentralized powers that be to create the human tools or means necessary without ceding to the temptation of providing special exemptions.

The thirty-eight million persons with disabilities in Europe represent a chance for the betterment of our quality of life with regards to the remarkable shift in the aging curve, and the concept we have of equal opportunity.


3. Humanitarian Commitment

To be born with a disability in Europe or to live with one acquired later is sometimes akin to an obstacle course. So, what can we say about those who, in addition to being disabled, are in the grips of malnutrition, misery and armed conflict ?

Conscious of the fact that my disability was perhaps not by chance, and strengthened by those who educated me, I naturally reconnected with those emergency care givers in countries at war, but also in those places where one doesn’t often go, because you just can’t take on the entire world’s misery yourself.

I’ve made a language out of my disability, an unbreakable line, a passport which accords me the status of citizen of the world. Working alongside the teams from Handicap International, it was as if I were with Malraux in Spain, Kessel on the Russian front, or Norman Béthune at the side of Mao.

After having reeducated hundreds of paraplegics and as many amputees who were the victims of antipersonnel mines, I could appreciate the immensity of the task and how great people’s misery is when they’re far from our opulence. Providing a degree of freedom to those who crawl in the dust is our mission, eliminating the tools of death, our honor. The Nobel Peace Prize of 1996 awarded to Handicap International rewarded work in the field in sixty countries of the world against those weapons of the cowardly, which blindly strike civilian populations. This commitment provides meaning to my quest to benefit others, because it’s my belief that man is not here on earth merely by chance. Technology is progressing, the world seeks and invents while populations sink into despair. Caught between these paradoxes, I decided to be on the side of those who are broken down, those with disabilities and those in misery, for whom there is no dignity.


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