Austrian city wins EU disability award amid gloom over social cuts
By Philip Ebels
In a faint note of optimism at a gloomy conference in Brussels on the effects the crisis is having on the lives of people with disabilities, the Austrian city of Salzburg on Thursday (1 December) was declared the most accessible in the European Union.
“Your fellow citizens are lucky to live in your city,” said EU justice and fundamental rights commissioner Viviane Reding, who handed out the award to Mayor Heinz Schaden.
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"I am surprised and happy about winning this award,” he said, "and I accept it humbly for all those people that are responsible that the needs of people with disabilities - but also of mothers with strollers for example - are taken into account on a day-by-day basis."
The alpine city was praised for its efforts to make life easier for the disabled in four areas: the built environment, transport, information, and public facilities. Particular attention was also given to its efforts to involve people with disabilities in decision-making, who dispose of their own advisory body since 1992.
The 'EU Access City Award' was launched last year by the European Commission and the European Disability Forum (EDF), and is open to all 1,000 or so European cities with 50,000 inhabitants or more.
Last year, the prize went to Avila, in Spain. This year, there were 114 participants, double the number from last year, from 23 different member states. The other three finalists were Krakow (Poland), Marburg (Germany), and Santander (Spain).
Earlier in the day, however, the mood was less congratulatory. The economic crisis and spending cuts have hit the disabled more than most in society, according to the head of the EDF.
The opening session of the conference, organised in the run-up to the International Day for People with Disabilities on 3 December, saw Yannis Vardakastanis, the director of the EDF, a blind man, bin the speech he had prepared and make an emotional plea "from the heart" to European leaders.
"We live in an era of great paradox," he began. In 2010, he said, the EU adopted its disability strategy and the UN ratified its convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. But now, "we are faced with cuts in every aspect of our life. In the health sector, in the social services sector, everywhere we are faced with cuts. It is a very dangerous situation. We need a new plan."
"I speak for the most forgotten among the forgotten,” he continued, almost shouting. “We send a clear, strong, and loud message to all governments, to all institutions, to all those who take decisions, that the EU [needs to be] determined to protect the most vulnerable, disabled people, from the repercussions of the crisis."
Later on, John Evans, an activist with the EDF and a wheelchair user, re-iterated his statement made to EUobserver that people with disabilities are "terrified" of what may come of the austerity wave engulfing Europe.
"The UN convention was a breath of fresh air," he said, "but the utopia didn't last. Last year has been very depressing, given the hardships that people with disabilities have been through. At the moment, people are struggling."