Overview of the Conference "Self-determined Living for Disabled Women in Europe"

A brief review of papers and discussions about Women with Disabilities held during the conference in Munich, 1996. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs5/WomensConference.html

Munich, Germany, August 15-18, 1996

The following is an overview of the conferemce. Details of presentations, results of workshops and the final resolution will be provided by the proceedings which the staff of bifos, the education and research Independent Living Institute of disabled people, promised to make available within the next few months.

Thanks to the support of the European Union (EU) simultaneous translation was provided for all plenary sessions in German, English and French. Since there were only two French women attending, Russian understood by most of the East Europeans would have been a better choice but was no option since it lies outside the official EU language family. Language problems were experienced in the workshops since the chairs spoke in their native language aided by translation into German or English.

Dinah Radtke of DPI and ISL (Interessenvertretung für Selbstbestimmtes Leben, Germany) chaired the meeting. She welcomed 140 women from 20 countries.

Claudia Nolte of the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth was represented by Gertrud Dempwolf. She reported among other milestones of progress for disabled persons that in Oct 96 a three year study on the situation of disabled women will be launched. She pointed to the recent (94) amendment of the German Constitution which includes a statement on the right of disabled children to be educated in regular schools.

Dr. Loessl, the PR representative of the Volkshochschule (adult education classes) talked about the considerable number of offerings of the Volkshochschule for disabled persons and to the fact that the main building where the meeting took place is totally accessible. 70% of the student body are women who participate in the more than 5000 offerings.

Rachel Hurst, chair of DPI, Europe had to excuse herself because of illness. She sent a paper which was read by Dinah Radtke.

Nicola Bedlington, an English woman working for the European Disability Forum gave a report with detailed information on the various programs of the EU for and in which disabled women can participate. There is a European Women's Lobby, an NGO founded in 1990 which has no special disabled women's group but has started to work on disability issues, racism and disabled women as parents.

Dr. Theresia Degener talked about international human rights and disabled people, laws and politics and how they affect disabled women. She showed slides with names and dates of UN legislation, international human rights instruments such as convenants and declarations. She talked about the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities and encouraged her audience to familiarize itself with these important pieces of legislation.

Aysha Vernon from Great Britain gave the talk about disabled women in the labor market. She painted a grim picture since only a third of disabled women are employed in Great Britain and those who are employed earn a third less than men in comparable jobs. The lack of research on women in the labor force is another indication for the marginality of this problem. To conclude on an optimistic note she encouraged the women to take advantage of opportunities to work at home, to free-lance and to make the most of changing working hours.

I attended the workshop on "networking, how can disabled women build networks" which was chaired by Annelie Jonneken, Sweden. The woman who represented Belarus Republic described the very difficult economic situation in her country, mentioning also that there were no accessible buildings. The movement is limited to Minsk where DPI has a chapter. There is no organization for disabled women in the Czech Republic but some of the traditional organizations for disabled people have women's groups. The woman from Ireland said there is an organization for all disabled people with a group for disabled women. Christina Vuellenmier from Switzerland asked the women to participate in a directory for German speaking countries of organizations for disabled people, businesses run by disabled people and disabled professionals. Swedish and German representatives encouraged women to "infiltrate" non-disabled women's organizations and invite persons who have never heard of their existence.

Recommendations and resolutions will be in the proceedings.

Saturday's session was opened by a brief description of European organizations such as DISWEB and NOSEVI.

DISWEB is a European network of disabled women which will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a meeting in Helsinki, Finland this year. It issues a newsletter once a year. Contact person is Elisa Pelkonen, Mariankatu 24 E 40 , 00170 Helsinki, Finland.

A national level network in Germany is in the planning stages.

Dr. Degener described NOSEVI -No Sexual Violence against Disabled Women. It offers therapy for disabled women who have experienced sexual violence and provides legal counseling by Degener who described the uphill struggle against the non-disabled so-called experts in this field who see everything from a medical perspective. NOSEVI has 30 members from different countries. Degener asked the audience for help in running, expanding the network and for publication of a newsletter.

Ann Pridmore of the British Council of Organizations of Disabled People spoke about independent living and personal assistance (PA). She described the rigidity of the PA system which in its beginning was more like institutionalization in one's own home than help for independent living. She told the audience that to become an employer for PA is much harder than expected especially for women who have never worked.

Swantje Koebsell discussed euthanasia and eugenics - the importance of the new bioethics for disabled women. The bioethics convention puts freedom of research above human rights. Self-determination has always been limited to certain people. Bioethics concerns experimentation with human beings, active assistance to die, involuntary sterilization and prenatal diagnosis. Germany and Austria have not approved the bioethics convention of the EU.

Baerbel Mickler, a peer counselor for disabled women and girls in Hamburg reported that the center had doubted the need for counseling on sexual violence for some time. It turned out that all 8 girls in her counseling group had had personal experience with sexual violence perpetrated by family members, friends, relatives or staff members in institutions. Mickler described the difficulties for the involved women and girls to talk about it and described some basic prevention strategies.

Anneli Jonneken, DPI, Sweden emphasized the interest of DPI in the empowerment of disabled women. She referred to the UN seminar on disabled women, Vienna 1990 and made the report available to the participants. She said that the document is being worked on to bring it up to date. She called upon the participants to engage themselves in the follow-up to conventions e.g. on behalf of disabled girls in the convention on the rights of children. She deplored that the UN documents are not nearly well enough known in Europe and offered to send the DPI's women's kit to participants.

One of the working groups talked at length about personal assistance (PA) and the differences of PA systems in European countries. In Austria, Finland, Belgium, Germany and Great Britain PA is anchored in legislation. PA was started in Hungary this year. In Germany PA is organized through the independent living centers. The new German law on long term care/PA insurance is a regression. In Austria a law provides money for PA. In Croatia there is no PA available and disabled young persons are forced to live in old-age homes. In terms of services war-disabled persons receive preferences. In Russia there is no PA. Disabled persons live in institutions or with their families. 2 new laws have been enacted "on social protection" and "social services" but implementation is lacking. In Great Britain some PA projects are handled locally others by the Central government.

Barbara Schmidtbauer, member of the European Parliament and chair of the group for disabled affairs (not an organ of Parliament) which maintains contact with NGOs and the European Disability Forum. She pointed out that very little in the area of disability has happened in the European Parliament.The social situation of disabled women was last reported on in l989. Disabled women who become pregnant are still expected to seek an abortion. The situation on the labor market is grim. Only 20% of disabled women are in the labor force. They have inferior education and training and experience widespread discrimination.

The German Federal government considers disability problems as subsidiary and therefore refuses to create legislation. The Maastricht treaty would need an anti-discrimination statement which however will be inserted only if consensus among the countries is achieved. Lobbying would be essential.

Among responses from the audience to Schmidtbauer was a general complaint that the application process for EU money is extremely complex, that decisions on applications take too long and that even if an award has been made the money does not flow for a long time. Schmidtbauer conceded that these complaints were legitimate. The only explanation for the status quo is much abuse of EU money in the beginning.

Degener recommended that disability networks and organizations should have autonomous status and that a study on sexual violence be done for all of Europe.

There were lengthy discussions about the text of the resolution which was distributed in its draft form in German and English. Some changes will be made since participants found that no references had been made to disabled girls. Also there were objections to the closing of special institutions for disabled people to which deaf persons took exception. With promise of the changes to be worked out the resolution was unanimously adopted.

Dr. Helga Roth, Munich