Creating a political alliance for anti-discrimination legislation in Germany

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Creating a political alliance for anti-discrimination legislation in Germany

Ottmar Miles-Paul & Uwe Frehse, Interesseverein für selbstbestimmt Leben, ISL, Germany

Ottmar Miles-Paul

The main reason I became active in the German disability movement 6 years ago was to work on getting rid of discriminatory barriers which I, as a person with a visual impairment, am constantly confronted with. After spending one and a half years working with the Independent Living Movement in the USA, I began working with the German umbrella organization on Independent Living, the Interessenvertretung selbstbestimmt Leben in Deutschland (ISL). As a social worker I am also working at the Center for Independent Living in Kassel, the Verein zur Autonomie Behinderter (fab e. V.).

The reason I chose to talk about creating a political alliance for anti-discrimination legislation in Germany is that in order to overcome the many discriminatory barriers disabling us, we must create strong political alliances. This process is a crucial first step.

To provide you with an overview of our latest activities and strategies in Germany, we have divided this presentation into three parts. In the first part I will describe the problems and difficulties in German disability politics which we, with our alliance, are trying to overcome. Secondly, I will describe how we established our political alliance and what sort of work we do in it. In the third and last section of our talk, my colleague Uwe Frehse, who is the German representative of the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL), will describe a concrete beginning toward creating a broad and powerful alliance for anti-discrimination legislation in Europe.

To begin, let me describe some problems with disability politics as it has been and, for the most part, still is in Germany. In Germany we have many disability organizations. The majority of these organizations are strongly dominated by parents of disabled people and other non-disabled people and by their norms of how disabled people should live and behave. These traditional organizations, which are usually led by non-disabled people, generally work for the "good" of people whom they do not even consult. Additionally, these groups are usually strictly divided according to the disabilities they represent, and sometimes even compete with each other.

In the mid-1970's disabled people began to criticize the way traditional organizations work and started to set up their own organizations, in which disabled people reserve leadership for themselves. Civil disobedience and demonstrations are important tools which these groups use to influence disability politics. The umbrella organization on Independent Living which I represent and mentioned earlier, ISL, grew out of this movement and combines the strategies of each group: we use both civil disobedience and political lobbying. These kinds of disability organizations in Germany have hardly cooperated with each other at all and sometimes even fought against each other.

In the mid-1980's, news of a strong, successful Independent Living Movement in the USA and a coinciding, effective anti-discrimination legislation spread throughout Germany. Several disabled people travelled there and have brought back confirmation of the philosophy of empowering disabled people and of the cross-disability, political approach. The creation of a network of Centers for Independent Living was one major result of this new political wave in disability.

Another major result was that a few progressive people within traditional organizations realized how important it is that disabled people determine their own politics themselves and that a strong coalition is necessary to pass strong anti-discrimination laws. The "Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990" gave the German disability movement a big push. One traditional organization for mobility-impaired people, for example, organized a seminar in 1990 on anti-discrimination legislation. It was out of this seminar that the German Coalition for anti-discrimination legislation was born in November of last year.

The 8 members of this coalition represent a wide range of disability organizations in Germany and have been working well together despite different approaches to disability politics. Our common desire to have strong anti-discrimination legislation passed in Germany and the fact that we all realized that without a broad coalition of disability organizations we would not achieve this goal, made cooperation with each other easier. No single organization, however powerful, would be able to get strong anti-discrimination legislation passed on its own.

Since the word discrimination itself is a fairly new term in German disability politics - most disabled people do not think of themselves as being discriminated against - spreading the word is essential at this stage of the Coalition's work.

One major tool which we use to promote our ideas is a quarterly newsletter called "Disabled in Action" which I edit and distribute through the Kassel CIL on behalf of the Coalition. "Disabled in Action" is designed to be small enough to be inserted into disability journals but substantial enough to be distributed in its own right.

The newsletter, which is already a supplement to six periodicals, reports on upcoming events, provides tips on resources for further information about anti-discrimination legislation and reports on discriminatory practices and on protests. It also serves as a networking tool by listing organizations which support the demand for anti-discrimination legislation. Since its first appearance in April of this year, more than 40 organizations - some of them umbrella organizations with thousands of members - wrote us that they support our campaign.

Another activity which served to spread the word about discrimination against disabled people and remedies for it was a conference on anti-discrimination legislation organized by the German Independent Living umbrella organization ISL, which my colleague and I attended in Bremen, just before we rushed to this meeting here in Budapest.

Other effective publicity strategies which we use include public lectures and exhibitions. We have invited Ms. Marilyn Golden and other prominent disability activists to speak in various German cities. At a major international rehabilitation exhibition this fall the topic of the opening session, to be televised in the form of a talk show, will be anti-discrimination legislation. The talk show will, among other things, serve to publicize a petition which describes our demands and requests support for them and we hope that both many signatures and legislative action will follow.

Soon negotiations will begin with various government officials, including people in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Social Affairs. And finally in order to bring this idea onto the very streets, to produce the broadest publicity possible, a Europe-wide protest day has been organized for next year which my colleague Uwe Frehse will discuss and in which you all will hopefully participate.

Mr. Uwe Frehse

The European Network on Independent Living, which true to its name has already developed a good and effective network of people and organizations dedicated to the self-determination of disabled people, has decided to hold a Europe-wide Protest Day for Equal Rights and against Discrimination of Disabled People on the 5th of May 1992, on Europe Day 1992. This Protest Day will consist of a great variety of activities, including information booths, lectures and visits to political representatives as well as demonstrations and blockades. One major purpose of the Protest Day is to strengthen the European disability movement by developing a European coalition for anti-discrimination legislation. The Protest Day will make discriminatory practices a public matter by mobilizing the press and bringing our demands into every living room.

The Protest Day will have one organization per country coordinating the activities and public relations in that country, and the overall, European coordination will take place in Kassel, Germany. Anyone interested in participating should contact Ottmar or me and we can give you more specific information. We also can provide you with more background information about the new American legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, in the U.S.

The creation of an accessible Europe, of a Europe without architectural or any kind of barrier for people of any disability, requires a strong coalition among all disability activists and independent living and other groups on disability. Cooperation is a must for success. Together we can achieve a Europe with equal rights for us all. Together we are strong and can do it.


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