Saturday

21st May 2022

'It's not true that everything should be adapted'

  • Brussels map. Erik: 'If I had two wishes, it would be a taxi service that works like you would jump in your own car and the freedom to earn supplementary money' (Photo: clappstar)

Quality of life for a disabled man in the EU capital, the fountainhead of Europe-wide laws and standards, depends more on basic human values than on legislation.

Erik, a 41-year-old Dutch language teacher, became a wheelchair-using tetraplegic on 4 May 2007 when he lost control of his car on the motorway. He smashed his head into the roof of the vehicle as it flipped over, breaking the C6 vertebra in his neck and cutting his spinal cord in two.

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The European Commission building in the EU quarter in Brussels is a model of accessibility for wheelchair users. And officials inside draft ambitious documents, such as the 2010 policy paper A Renewed Commitment to a Barrier-Free Europe, which envisages "full participation of people with disabilities in society" by 2020.

But 300 metres down the road in Place Jourdain, where Erik goes for physiotherapy at the Parc Leopold clinic, the world is different.

Wonky pavements and jutting kerbs make it hard to get around. All but one of the cafes are blocked by steps. Toilets are located in basements.

Problems multiply in other parts of the city - cobblestones, steep hills, narrow doorways, cinemas with next to no wheelchair places, old trams impossible to get onto and taxi firms with few adapted cars. In the special taxi service put on by authorities, the vehicles are shabby and bookings for slots have to be made well in advance.

"If I am late, people can get stressed. I try to stay calm. They don't know how much effort I made to be there. I would not be so easy-going if I was not so dependent," Erik told EUobserver.

Medical insurance and living allowances in Belgium are decent. But there is inadequate cover for modifying your home, forcing people into social housing. And if you try to get back to work - in Erik's case, by doing a few hours of private language teaching - your benefits get slashed.

Despite the obstacles, Erik believes the two things that make the biggest difference to his life are things nobody can legislate on - Belgian culture and one's own personality.

The state needs to provide the infrastructure for him to "live a normal life." And Erik says that public buildings, such as museums and railway stations, should on principle be accessible: "Screw it, even if it was built in 1600, there should be a ramp."

But beyond the fundamentals, the way ordinary Belgians react makes up for the gaps in facilities.

"When a cafe owner gives you a warm welcome, then you don't mind if there's a step and you need to ask for help. If people are welcoming, then you don't need to hassle them with laws ... It's not true that everything should be adapted. It would kill business. No society is completely adapted to the needs of any one person, unless he is king of the world," Erik said.

White women and Arab men tend to be the most helpful, he reckons. Staff in luxury spots, such as the Sofitel hotel in Place Jourdain, tend to do more than staff in run-of-the-mill establishments.

The disabled person also has responsibility for his own welfare.

Erik said that if you want good treatment, you should do the same things as able-bodied people: take care of personal grooming, dress well, do not make a mess as you go along and "have enough energy to make contact" with others.

Eating properly so that you keep your weight down is useful: "Nobody wants to push you or lift you if you are 30kg overweight." So is prudence in the way you tackle situations: "It's very important to position yourself in a safe place, so that people can help you voluntarily. Not so you are in a dangerous place and it's an emergency, like getting exhausted on a hill."

He has little sympathy for the cult of self-pity he sees in many wheelchair users.

"You can be poor, but there's a difference between being poor and feeling poor. I see people complaining all the time - then you really don't fit in. You put yourself on the side," Erik said.

"If I had two wishes, it would be a taxi service that works like you would jump in your own car, and the freedom to earn supplementary money. So you could just do it without the fear of losing out or having to go through all the admin," he added.

"This would really contribute to creating independence, which should be the goal of any well-meaning legislation meant to create a more inclusive world for people with disabilities."

"A social life is better than anti-depressants."

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As EU governments cut corners on their budgets, welfare spending is usually the first on the chopping block. The decision can be made at the stroke of a pen. But the on-the-ground effects for welfare-dependent disabled people can be devastating.

Brussels wants common disabled benefits across Europe

The 80 million Europeans with some form of disability should not see their benefits disappear should they cross a border within the EU, the European Commission believes and is considering ensuring such barriers disappear by the end of the decade.

EU forbids airlines to discriminate against disabled and elderly

People with reduced mobility should get the same access to air travel as other passengers, according to new EU rules set to come into effect on Thursday. The rules forbid airlines to deny reservations to disabled or elderly people while making assistance in airports and on planes obligatory.

For many, the Internet remains a mystery

Despite commitments made and resolutions adopted, the vast majority of websites, public and private, are not in line with international accessibility standards.

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Life on the road for people with disabilities may become just a little bit easier after the winners of the first ever Vodafone Foundation Smart Accessibility Awards for easy-access smartphone apps were announced on Monday evening.

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