At the time the Berlin Wall came down, America was drafting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), promising its 49.7 million citizens with disabilities access to education, justice, employment, and society. Furthermore, the ADA became the model for the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a human rights treaty to which ratifying countries commit to harmonizing legislation in accord with the CRPD. All five European countries that were part of my recent Marshall Memorial Fellowship trip– Belgium, France, Germany, Serbia, and Spain– had individually ratified. During a discussion of European and American cultures, a powerful statement was made was that often we do not know our own culture and identity until we leave our country. As a Deafblind American, leaving America meant a change in the rights I had come to expect since the passing of the ADA in 1990.
Earlier this year, several Deaf individuals were elected to the European Parliament, a move signifying a step towards inclusion for 80 million Europeans with disabilities in political decision-making in Brussels. A number of legislations and strategies had been drafted in Brussels aiming to create a barrier-free Europe. There’s still much work to be done on the ground— literally, as I stumble over broken cobblestones. Disability inclusion in European society still shows some challenges as evidenced by the disapproving looks I received when using my cane or sign language.
Shortly before I landed in Germany, Berlin dedicated a Holocaust memorial for the 70,000 victims of the Third Reich who were killed due to having a physical or mental disability. Though the dedication of these victims came seventy years later, Germany acknowledges a part of its history that even Holocaust history ignores— the persecution of people with disabilities. Throughout my visit, there was clear evidence that Germany is working towards a barrier-free Europe through accessible information, buildings and even a tactile 3D model of the city. But the most powerful example of Germany’s commitment to inclusion was the high visibility of citizens with disabilities who were clearly accepted members of society. While Germany has learned and apologized for its history of widespread discrimination, modern Germany has much to teach the world about inclusion for all.
The trend for a barrier-free Europe continued in Bilbao, Spain whose recent revitalization incorporated what many revitalization and development fail to do: include accessibility in its blueprint. Bilbao included more than just basic accessibility standards; the crosswalks included some highly advanced technology for the blind, the tourism office included Braille in multiple languages, and the Guggenheim Museum has a stunning tactile exhibit for the blind. Yet the city keeps its accessibility a well-kept secret. Bilbao not only needs to market itself as an accessible city but should share its best practices with cities around the world.
After visiting two highly accessible cities, I came across inaccessible Belgrade. When I asked city planners and architects about accessibility standards, the response was that they adhere to the accessibility standards in the law but none of them could tell me what the actual standards were. What was alarming to me was that with the 2011 Census noting that 577,000 Serbians identified themselves as having a disability, not a single person with a disability was visible during my visit.
The MMF fellows convened together one last time in Paris, a city famous for its rallying cry of liberty. Yet the wall still exists for most people with disabilities in Europe as well as in America. History has taught us the dire consequences of discrimination and exclusion. Transatlantic dialogue needs to keep disability on the agenda and both sides of the pond must realize the social and economic benefits to a fully inclusive society for all. Only then will the wall truly come down for all and will liberty be achieved.
Kerry Thompson, a Program Associate at the Disability Rights Fund, is a Fall 2014 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.