"The Antidiscrimination-debate in the EU and mobility restrictions for disabled people in Europe"

26. April 2005 zur Übersicht

Rede auf der ”European Conferences for Equal Chances and Social Integration and Against the Discrimination of Disabled People" in Vienna



There are thirty eight million people throughout the EU who have a disability. But discrimination against disabled people has only really been looked at in the last few years at an EU level. So what have European politicians done?

[the spoken word counts]

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank you very much for your invitation to speak at the conference ”European Conferences for Equal Chances and Social Integration and Against the Discrimination of Disabled People"

I am very happy to be here today, not only because Vienna is such a wonderful and interesting city, but also because you all are engaged in such a fundamental theme, the policy of the antidiscrimination, which concerns every disabled person in Europe.

As the spokesperson for the Greens in the European Parliament for transport issues I face often the problems in the daily life of handicapped people in the field of "Mobility restrictions". I am therefore glad that I have the chance to discuss it with you in this conference. I am looking forward to your experience, opinions and proposals.

Let me start with some general remarks on aspects, problems and possible political solutions in this field. I'd especially like to focus on the things the EU already did to change the insufficient situation of disabled people and where the EU failed - in general and in particular in the field of transport and the free access to it.

1. Current situation of disability-politics and antidiscrimination in the EU
This is the motto of the conference.

There are thirty eight million people throughout the EU who have a disability. But discrimination against disabled people has only really been looked at in the last few years at an EU level. So what have European politicians done?
The first action was a statement in December 1996 on Equality of Opportunity for People with Disabilities which was followed up in the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 when the Union was given the power to combat discrimination on grounds of sex, religion or belief, race, age, sexual orientation and disability. Using this as a starting point a comprehensive anti-discrimination package was passed in 2000 including a law for equal treatment in employment and an action program to combat discrimination. So now there is a legal framework for legally enforceable employment rights, including protection against harassment, scope for positive action, appropriate remedies and enforcement measures. It also places a duty on workplaces to adapt the workplace to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Equal opportunities are supposed to be mainstreamed in EU policy development and there is a special unit in the Commission with responsibility for making sure that disabilities are taken into account when any European law is being prepared.

It is also a matter of human rights. In the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union, which will be part of the new constitutional treaty for Europe if it is agreed upon by the European people and parliaments in the next months, there is an article which prohibits discrimination and a special paragraph on the rights of persons with disabilities which reads:

Article II-26: Integration of persons with disabilities

The Union recognises and respects the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community.

This will be legally binding and could be enforced by any citizen in a court of law.

It was felt however that just preparing new laws was not enough. You need to build up a momentum for change in member states and engage with the public - win them over and make everyone aware of the stereotyping and exclusion of disabled individuals and groups. This is how the idea of making 2003 a European Year for Disabled People came about.

The Year was supposed to be about facing up to the problems and discrimination that face people with disabilities but it was also supposed to be a lot more positive. It is about celebrating the talents of people with disabilities. It is about seeing the person not the disability and changing attitudes. It is about individuals and groups of people with disabilities representing themselves and participating fully in society.

And it is also about working together - exchanging ideas and experiences at local, regional, national and European levels as well as coordination between government actors, voluntary groups and communities.

Because disability should not just be about a physical, sensory, or learning impairment. Disability in its broadest meaning is about the exclusion of certain people from social, economic, cultural and political activities because people who design or arrange activities haven’t taken account of everyone’s personal requirements.

The medical model of disability still dominates institutional thinking. This defines disability as a problem with the person. According to the medical model of disability, people with a disability can not participate in the ‘regular’, non-disabled, world because their legs, eyes, ears etc. don't work. The solution, in this view of the world, is to invest in cures to help walking, talking, hearing, seeing...But in reality the main problem lies with society's acceptance and adaptation. Very few people deliberately discriminate against disabled people. But it is easy to put up unnecessary barriers that shut people out.

Some barriers are obvious such as buildings designed on different levels with stairs and no ramps or lifts.

But other barriers are less obvious, for example

• publishing information using small print means that over 15% of the population can not read it.

• assumptions about formal qualifications in job adverts ignore the fact that the "special” school system is not geared towards academic achievement - with remarkable consequences for disabled people - an aspect I'd like to stress a bit deeper in a few moments.

This is why mainstreaming equality and raising awareness is so important.
As you can see, the line of European efforts is long and many-sided and could be continued, but unfortunately there are still deficits. - Deficits mainly caused by a missing awareness! Let me explain that by telling you some problems you might have already been facing with the COMENIUS-program - a program of the EU for education exchange.

2. Keeping the view broad: the wrong example of the COMENIUS-program

Good words are easy to find - the deeds, the actual realisation, seems instead much harder. EU-programs, where disabled persons are actively engaged, cannot have the same standards of quality - this contradicts the fact of the disability.

That is why I would like to talk here about the Comenius 3 request of 2004 where this aspect was obviously heavily ignored. No project for disabled persons has been approved in the decision about Comenius 3. The decision of the EU-commission is in blatant contrast to its own demands.

Apparently there were schools from the new member states and Romania who were not taken into the program because of too low quality standards. But in these countries schools for persons with disabilities were heavily neglected in the past. Those schools are equipped far worse than schools in the old EU-states or comparable schools for persons with no disabilities; the same can be said for the education of teachers.

All these deficits that resulted from the discrimination in the past have not been reduced yet. Now projects that envisage a lowering of these differences in quality are not supported and thus, the differences are hardened. It is a contradiction that schools that have been neglected in the past and were of lower quality for this reason will not receive any support or money, because they cannot keep up with the quality of other schools.

Equality of chances is judged only on the basis of the equality between men and women, not on the basis of equality of disabled and non-disabled persons.
In general, the application and the criteria of the selection process should be made more suited to disabled persons. That is what I am going to plead for in my further political work in the EP.

3. What did Europe do for the mobility of disabled people?

It were the Scandinavian countries which were the good example in the transport sector: they already realized means of transport also suitable for disabled people while other countries were still not even thinking of it.

About 30 per cent of people using public transport are handicapped in their mobility - that's what all surveys tell us. This not only means people in wheelchairs. Parents with baby carriages, companions of small children - you might know from your own perspective how long it can take to get out of a metro-stop or only to change platforms with two small kids. I am also thinking of older people: Taking the stairs is often difficult and exhausting for them, taking the escalator could be dangerous.

And let's not forget temporary situations. I noticed how the view on daily life can change when you face the world and the difficulties to get from A to B when your leg is in a cast. This kind of experience is usually an experience for a lifetime.

Let me therefore stress my first important remark on this issue: people are not disabled; they are being disabled by the conditions they face in daily life.
The European Union was undertaking some legislative work or is on the way with proposals for directives. The EU commission has supported research programs on the adaptation of different means of transport to their needs, covering low floor buses and the accessibility of coaches and long - distance buses and of rail, which have led or will lead to legislative initiatives.

In this context I'd like to mention the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council of November 2001 relating to special provision for vehicles used for the carriage of passengers comprising more than eight seats - behind this technical term you'll find the obligatory rules for all busses in the European Union to have

• a ramp for the access with wheelchairs

• a certain number of larger seats depending on the size of the bus

• a sufficient place in every bus for wheelchairs.

This directive had to be implemented by the Member States at 13th of august last year.

In the case of rail, more actions have been launched. First, on the basis of the directive on the interoperability of the conventional rail system, technical specifications for interoperability covering accessibility for persons with reduced mobility are being developed, with the aim of enabling the Commission to adopt a decision in 2005.

Second, as announced in its communication on an integrated railway area, in March 2004 the Commission adopted a proposal for a regulation on the rights of passengers using international services, including people with reduced mobility. (C5-0116-04). This directive has passed the Committee of Transport and Tourism on April 19, 2005. It was enhanced by its members considering the interests of disabled people.

As for maritime transport, the amended directive on safety rules and standards for passenger ships introduced requirements concerning the safety of persons with reduced mobility. (KOM (2005)47, directive 2003/24/EG).

Consequently, comparable opportunities for air travel have to be implemented. It should be as well open to people suffering the disadvantage of reduced mobility, whether caused by disability, age or some other factor. Passengers with reduced mobility should be confident that their needs will be met throughout the European Community, whatever airline or airport they plan to use.

I welcome the initiative of the EU-commission to guarantee the rights of persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air by a new legislation. The proposal for that we just got in February this year.(C6-0045/05)

4. Practical experiences in Berlin transport

In Berlin, the city I come from, permanent demonstrations of disabled people organisations at openings of new metro-stations were necessary before an escalator was set to be a standard-equipment of any new station. In 1987, on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of Berlin, the city renovated the central railway station "Bahnhof Zoo" without building elevators. It was the protest of 20 persons in wheelchairs which got all the attention of the press at the opening ceremony. That was the end of ignorance against disabled people: On the record the major of Berlin promised that elevators would be installed subsequently at this station.

The real change then came with the first red-green government in the city-state of West-Berlin in 1989. Together with the Social democrats we Greens wanted to implement the following:

• Priority for elevators instead of escalators: there had been stations with up to 20 escalators but without a single elevator. But only they guarantee exit for everybody and in both directions - up and down.

• Minimum size for elevators of 2,10 meters to 1,40 meters. By that elevators aren't only more comfortable for companions of people in wheelchairs but also for those with baby carriages. Transporting bikes for example is also much easier with larger elevators.

For the bus traffic we had a look at the American example - given by the "Americans-with-Disabilities-Act", an US-wide law which demands handicapped accessible busses everywhere in the country. Most of the older busses with a high entrance level have a little lift - easy in use for driver and disabled person. Whenever I was in the US using busses I never heard complains of other passengers about the loss of time. Once again you can see: There is a big acceptance for necessary measures by non-handicapped people.

We've had our throwbacks also in Berlin, of course. The lifts in busses had been abolished. Needs of disabled people were also not taken into consideration when the old streetcars were renewed. Other cities showed more creativity. In Cottbus and Mannheim, for example, old trams with a high entrance level got added a new low-level part in the middle. By doing that old wagon-material was still useable and by the same time the access for handicapped people was guaranteed. Also financially a quite interesting example.

In 1992 the city government of Berlin passed "guidelines for the strengthening of a handicapped accessible city". These guidelines are not only underlining the aim that all means of transport have to be accessible for disabled people without someone's help. It also demands that every renovation of old stations must make them accessible for handicapped persons. And this is once again more than only the adding of elevators and ramps to old buildings. With the renovation the needs of blind and deaf people as well as the special situation of persons of short stature has to be considered. After a long discussion process different organisations of disabled people finally agreed on common standards. Again and again you'll find tries of undermining these standards. But: In my view it is much more necessary in the interest of all passengers to have a free accessible station rather then a freshly painted with wattles.

This Berlin initiative was enlarged by laws on the state-level in 1999 and federal level in Germany in 2002.

My experience from Berlin tells me that a certain public pressure combined with the right political measures can very much ameliorate the living conditions of disabled people. By legislation - either from local, national or European level - we have to set the standards to ensure the mobility of handicapped people.

I will stay focussed on the problems of handicapped people in my work in the European Parliament. I am very much interested in your daily experience in this field and I hope that we will have a fruitful discussion. I'd already like to ask you to keep me updated so that I can use this information for my political work.

I thank you for your attention.