Éléonore Laloux helps France see disability differently

Colette Davidson
City council member Éléonore Laloux is leading efforts in Arras, France, to make the town more accepting of people with disabilities.

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Inside Arras City Hall, city council member Éléonore Laloux barely fills out her desk chair, but her persona and vision are outsized.

Ms. Laloux is the first and so far only person with Down syndrome to be elected to public office in France. Last year, she was put in charge of inclusion and happiness in Arras, bringing an effervescent energy to city decisions. Ms. Laloux has utilized her lived experience and innovative ideas to make sure inclusion and accessibility are a part of every city initiative.

Why We Wrote This

Disability is often seen as an impediment. But Éléonore Laloux – France’s first elected official with Down syndrome – is proving that her unique perspective is an asset to her town.

Her commitment is paying off. Today, Ms. Laloux officially receives membership in the prestigious National Order of Merit, France’s second-highest national order after the Legion of Honor.

Ms. Laloux’s mere presence has transformed Arras into a model of accessibility and inclusion, and can have an impact on towns across France, experts say. Projects completed or in the works include a virtual tour of a famous belfry, verbal instructions at crosswalks, and easier-to-see street signs.

“For me, people with disabilities, visible or invisible, are full members of society and have the right to have the same access as everyone else,” says Ms. Laloux.

The northern French town of Arras is known for its giants. Draped in folkloric dress, four 13-foot statues made of painted wicker stand inside the tourist office off the regal Hôtel de Ville, and are brought out during town festivals to dance high above the crowds.

A few winding streets down, encircled by colorful flower beds, is the Arras City Hall. Inside, city council member Éléonore Laloux barely fills out her desk chair but her persona and vision outsize any of the Arras giants.

“I’m a very committed and dynamic person, and I like to be out working with people,” says Ms. Laloux. She’s become a household name in Arras and regularly receives congratulations from locals for her dedication to her work. “I want to fulfill my mandate, be happy, and make other people happy. ... I love what I do.”

Why We Wrote This

Disability is often seen as an impediment. But Éléonore Laloux – France’s first elected official with Down syndrome – is proving that her unique perspective is an asset to her town.

Ms. Laloux is the first and so far only person with Down syndrome to be elected to public office in France. Last year, she was put in charge of inclusion and happiness in Arras, bringing an effervescent energy to city decisions. Alongside Mayor Frédéric Leturque, Ms. Laloux has utilized her lived experience and innovative ideas to make sure inclusion and accessibility are a part of every city initiative – from education to transportation to tourism. 

Colette Davidson
Draped in folkloric dress, the Arras "giants" come out to dance during town festivals.

Her commitment is paying off. Today, Ms. Laloux officially receives membership in the prestigious National Order of Merit, France’s second highest national order after the Legion of Honor.

As she looks ahead to her second of six years in office, Ms. Laloux is not just helping the city rethink what inclusion means, but also changing minds about what it’s like to live with a disability as well as what those with cognitive disabilities are capable of.

“Inclusion isn’t something that we just think about; it’s not a generous act. It’s our duty,” says Mr. Leturque, who put forward Ms. Laloux as a candidate last year. “Eléonore has helped the entire town progress in terms of how we see disability.”

“Down Syndrome, So What?”

Working as a city council member is just one of Ms. Laloux’s many activities. She works 15 hours a week at the local hospital in the billing department, and keeps a packed volunteer schedule. She acts as a spokesperson for les Amis d’Eléonore, a collective that works with parents of children with Down syndrome, and is on the board of Down Up, a nonprofit her father launched to seek more recognition of those with intellectual disabilities. 

Seven years ago, she co-wrote her biography, “Triso et alors!” (“Down Syndrome, So What?”), and was featured in a documentary about living with Down syndrome. But it’s her work as city council member that has ignited her passion. 

A recent trip to London inspired her to put forward three accessibility projects now set to be realized: stoplights that count down and give verbal instructions to walk or wait for people with visual or hearing impairments, street signs that are easier to see for children or people in wheelchairs, and an “incluthon” next summer to unite people with disabilities through sports and cultural activities.

Ms. Laloux is also helping the town launch the region’s first “nudge,” an Amsterdam-born concept that creates playful reminders to help locals take better care of their city – such as putting the image of a basketball hoop above a garbage can to invite people to properly throw away trash. She also has her sights set on creating Arras’s first dog park.

Colette Davidson
Since the election of Eléonore Laloux in Arras, the town’s tourist office has joined the cause to increase accessibility, starting with a virtual tour of the town’s famed town hall belfry.

“After that trip, I was really inspired,” says Ms. Laloux. “For me, people with disabilities, visible or invisible, are full members of society and have the right to have the same access as everyone else.”

France doesn’t take census-type statistics on people with disabilities, but Ms. Laloux is one of the few French people with a visible disability to hold a political position here. Her mere presence has transformed Arras into a model of accessibility and inclusion, and can have an impact on towns across France, says Pierre-Yves Baudot, a sociologist at the University of Paris Dauphine who specializes in politics and disability rights. 

“You can’t have someone in Laloux’s situation and nothing comes of it,” says Dr. Baudot. “We need more people living with disabilities in political positions who can speak for themselves and say, ‘These are our obstacles to mobility. This is what we need.’ It forces places to enact change.”

The focus of much of Ms. Laloux’s initiatives has been aimed at locals, but her ideas on inclusion are having an impact on the tourism sector. Thousands of visitors come every year to meander through the Arras streets lined with Flemish Baroque-style townhouses as well as its town hall and belfry, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.

The tourist office has created a virtual tour of the historic belfry, currently inaccessible to those unable to climb stairs, and is looking to create tours of the city in sign language. It also utilizes the city’s “picto-access” system, an online page that assesses sites in Arras for accessibility. It’s all part of a broader rethinking of the town.

“Éléonore has helped raise more awareness for people here that no matter your disability, everyone has a place in society,” says Aurélie Vilcocq, director of tourism information.

Putting a little color into life

Ms. Laloux credits her parents for pushing her to reach her full potential and says they always believed in her. She has lived independently since 2011 in an apartment in Arras and enjoys cooking, theater, and playing the electric guitar. “I love rock, especially Bob Dylan,” she says.

While she is adept at issues of accessibility and inclusivity at City Hall, she sometimes struggles to organize thoughts or put plans into action. Technician Ludovic Galland helps her with everyday operations, such as breaking down complex political and strategic jargon, and fellow council member Sylvie Noclercq – Ms. Laloux’s “godmother” of sorts – works with her to prepare for meetings or put a final finesse on her proposals. Ms. Noclercq says that Ms. Laloux has brought a needed freshness to City Hall.

“She’s very spontaneous, and brings a nice, uplifting energy,” says Ms. Noclercq. “It allows everyone to loosen up a bit, to be more natural and not take ourselves so seriously.” 

And aside from the political arena, Ms. Laloux was educated in the mainstream education system, holds a day job, and is integrated into her community. “She is the perfect example of inclusivity in all areas of life,” says David Leclercq, general director of the disability rights group APEI in nearby Valenciennes. “Her perseverance and tenacity can help others dare to face their own obstacles, as well as find innovative solutions to challenges.”

Now that COVID-19 infections are starting to drop and the country has implemented a mandatory health pass for most public venues, Ms. Laloux relishes in the joy she sees returning to her constituents. After all, her ability to bring happiness to others is one of the reasons she was elected.

“I want to see people happy, out for a drink or at a restaurant, hanging out with friends and family. ... I want to put a little color into life,” says Ms. Laloux. “It feels really nice to have a bit of color.” 

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