Disability across the world: living with a disability in Austria

Disability is treated differently across the world, in every aspect of life. Austria currently has around eight million inhabitants, and rising, due to immigration. 20.5% of the inhabitants are officially registered as having at least one disability. But what is it really like to live in Austria with a disability?

UN Convention signed in 2008

The Republic of Austria was one of the first countries to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, before the European Union and neighbouring Germany did. However, according to several experts, progress to implement it is slow.

“Austria is a traditional, rather conservative welfare state,” says senior lecturer Dr. Ursula Naue of the University of Vienna.”What is striking in comparison to other countries, is that there are only a few influential groups where persons with disabilities represent themselves and speak for themselves. Organisations where people without disabilities act and speak on behalf of disabled people dominate the scene.”

However, as Eringard Kaufmann, the general secretary of the umbrella organisation OAR (which represents disability organisations) points out, there are still a lot of organisations for people with disabilities, some of which are quite strong and have been active since WW II. Blind and visually impaired people, in particular, have access to strong groups. In addition, the Republic of Austria issues a lot of laws to protect those with disabilities. But these do not always marry together well with the legislation laid down by each state in Austria.

Unemployment among people with disabilities is about two times higher than among the general population. Recently, a business network that focusses on awareness of the needs of disabled people within work has been established. It involves high-profile corporations in Austria, such as REWE, IBM and Bank Austria.

Where you live in Austria makes a difference to the support you get

The situation for people with disabilities in Austria very much depends on the Bundesland (the state) they live in. Some, like Vienna or Styria, offer relatively good legal frameworks for disabled people, but others do not.

Some people are struggling to find accessible housing as the laws building companies have to stick to are different in each Bundesland. And during the last few years, these laws governing accessibility have been worsened. For example, it is no longer mandatory to include elevators for newly built blocks of flats. This applies to the jurisdiction of several states.

“It is difficult to live with a disability in the countryside,” says Brigitte Weber, mother of a wheelchair user, Alex. “In the countryside, everything is scarce – assistance, accessible doctors or even restaurants. You have to be very stubborn and determined to get what you need. The most important thing is to never let go. If you don’t ask repeatedly, people will forget about your needs.“ Alex visits schools to give children the opportunity to experience what it is like to move around in a wheelchair. Before that, most of them have never thought about how a tiny step could be a problem.

New laws on accessibility

Starting in January 2016, the Austria Equal Treatment Act, which originally came into force in 2006, has been expanded to cover accessibility issues in already existing buildings. The law states that all services in the public area have to be accessible for everyone, including people with disabilities.

The law is based on anti-discrimination. It has stirred a lot of commotion, but changed very little. Why? Firstly, it’s not easy to bring about change. People with disabilities have to sue individually if they feel discriminated against.

They have to prove the discrimination first in a so-called Schlichtungsstelle, and then in court. If the court agrees that there has been discrimination, the fines for the guilty party (private or public businesses) are ridiculously low – only up to 1,000 Euros. What’s more, even if the court says the suing person with disability is right, the business does not have to do away with the barrier.

Second, hardly anyone actually knows what accessibility really means. Most people, including business leaders, think only of wheelchairs, and forget other impairments, such as being blind. In addition, they often assume that changes to make things accessible will be costly.

Many are not aware of the fact that accessibility can be achieved with much simpler, cheaper and more creative measures. This ignorance may be due to the fact that no public information campaign was ever launched in connection to the preparation of the law. The public in Austria are simply ill-informed and ill-prepared.

Support for disabled people consists of a two-pronged approach, which covers direct financial support as well as services. Financial support, primarily called Pflegegeld (disability allowance for attendance), amounts to a rather large sum of approximately 2.53 billion Euros per year.

As Erwin Buchinger, the Austrian Disability Ombudsman points out, this is quite impressive. However, as Dorothea Brozek, an independent consulter on diversity and disability with a long experience with the Austrian system, adds that most of these payments go to elderly people.

As the bureaucratic responsibilities for the support disabled people are split up between the Republic of Austria and its nine states, it takes quite some time for someone who is newly disabled to receive payments, let along find out who to approach and exactly what they will get.

Personal Assistance in Austria

Personal Assistances (PAs) were introduced to Austria in the beginning of the 1990ies. There had been initiatives by independent living activists before, notably by campaigners Manfred and Annemarie Srb in the 1980ies. “It was not easy to introduce new knowledge and ways to Austria,” says Manfred Srb. “We really had to fight for every improvement. Maybe this spirit of fighting is missing today.” At lot has been achieved in the past, but they have seen stagnation since the mid-2000s in Austria.

For Thomas Stix, a web entrepreneur who needs a PA, injustice is the main problem. “There is a stark contrast between the quality and amount of PAs available for people who are lucky enough to have found work, and then those who were not so lucky. There are far less PAs available for the private area.”

Until this day, there has been no legal right to a PA in Austria. But a new policy/guideline was established in 2004. It states that the Republic of Austria will pay for s PA in the work area, and the states are responsible for s PA in the private area.

In practice, this means a lot of bureaucratic hassle for people with disabilities, because they have to deal with two different systems. Arguing what is private and what is work-related can be difficult. For example, if I have to wash my hair before a business meeting, is this work related or private? In the end, people with disabilities have to get up in the morning like everyone else who works. Who helps them with this? Is this strictly private or work related?

Dorothea Brozek calls this sort of debate debasing. “It would be much better to give people with disabilities the money they need for Personal Assistance directly. And an adequate amount of money. For example, the rate the City of Vienna (also a state) pays for an hour of a PA at 16 Euros. This sum has not been raised since 2006. These are not the prices you pay on the free market. If you hire a PA on your own, you have to pay more, of course.”

Dorothea argues that a one-stop-shop-system for people with disabilities for all the needs and questions they might have would be much fairer and less complicated than the current system with divided responsibilities between the Austrian Republic and its nine states.

By Karin Chladek

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