What nations created true democracy
"There is no real democracy without inclusion"
Interview with Jürgen Dusel, Federal Commissioner for the Disabled
WE met on August 29, 2018 with the Federal Government Commissioner for the Issues of People with Disabilities to talk about his first 100 days in office and his goals as the Commissioner for the Disabled:
WE: You have been the Federal Government Commissioner for the Issues of People with Disabilities for about 100 days, after you were previously the State Government Commissioner for the Issues of People with Disabilities in Brandenburg from 2010 to 2018. Have you arrived safely in your new position?
Jürgen Dusel: Yes, I was very well received - and, thank God, I have a lot of fun. Of course, I am now in a different situation at the federal level than in the beautiful, but sometimes a little more tranquil, state of Brandenburg. The cycle rate of the appointments is, for example, a higher one. But I have a great team that supports me.
In a figurative sense, you walk in the shoes of your predecessor, Verena Bentele. How does that feel?
(smiles) I don't think I'm walking in the - very sporty - Verena Benteles shoes. I think everyone should be wearing their own shoes. I really appreciate Verena Bentele and am also friends with her personally. She achieved a great deal in the last legislative period. At this time in particular, some very thick boards had to be drilled, such as the Federal Participation Act or the Disability Equality Act.
But each legislative period has its own priorities. The reference to democracy, to the democratic aspect of inclusion, is very, very important to me. That is why my motto is “Democracy needs inclusion”. I think democracy and inclusion are two sides of the same coin. Inclusion is not about helping people with disabilities out of kindness, care or charity. The point is that we all want to live in a society in which everyone has the same rights, is equally valuable, has the same opportunities and in which everyone should be able to participate. That is why I say that democracy needs inclusion and - conversely - without inclusion there is no real democracy.
So you could also reverse your motto: Inclusion needs democracy?
You understand what I want to say! This is about our basic understanding of society. Inclusion is not a fashion, but a very important part of our democracy. It's about equality, it's about equal opportunities, it's about social justice. These are the basic values for a democratic society.
It is the task of the state to legislate - for example by ratifying the UN Disability Rights Convention or by creating the Federal Participation Act. But that's not enough. The state must also ensure that people with disabilities can also use these set rights, live and refer to them - and, if necessary, enforce them against resistance. A right that I only have on paper but cannot live is not worth the paper on which it is written. Democracy is not always a matter of course, sometimes you have to stand up for it. Sometimes you have to convince, advertise clearly or even demand your rights for yourself. That's why I chose this topic. Inclusion is not a "nice to have". It is the foundation of our basic order.
This year I took part in a demonstration on May 5th on Breitscheidplatz. I think it's important to position yourself as a workshop employee, for example.
I feel the same way. Therefore, one of my current affairs of the heart is that the blanket electoral exclusions that affect a certain group of people with disabilities are abolished. It is about people for whom care is ordered in all matters or about culpable offenders who are housed in a psychiatric hospital. These are generally excluded from the election at federal and European level. That doesn't do our democracy well.
That is why I strongly advocate overturning these electoral exclusions before the European elections next year. This has already been achieved in five federal states. To be honest, I am proud that this has also been achieved in Brandenburg. But we don't want to be in the situation next year wherever European elections coincide with local elections, individual people may vote local but are excluded from the right to vote at European level. My motto “Democracy needs inclusion” also relates to this.
The blanket electoral exclusions have been under discussion for a long time ...
That's right. The fact that it has not yet been possible to overturn these exclusions is due to an anachronistic, outdated image of people with disabilities. There are people who are under so-called full care - by the way, I don't like this term very much either - who have a supervisor for all matters. For example, they work in the workshop every day, are involved in the value council or are women's representatives there. You are politically interested, maybe read all party programs in easy language - this is more than some non-disabled people do - and can very well articulate yourself politically. These people can decide for themselves what they find good or not good. And shouldn't these people be allowed to vote? That can no longer be conveyed at all!
So I think we need to make a change here. Incidentally, I don't have the impression that the elections in Schleswig-Holstein or North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, where everyone is actually allowed to vote, somehow went any worse than before. But on the contrary. People can get involved and have a say.
We are now in the middle of the current political debates - but originally we wanted to start with a completely different question: What does a life look like that leads to the Kleisthaus in Berlin?
(laughs): It's like inclusion: It's a hike that you embark on. Sometimes such a hike is surprising - at least it was like that for me.
I was born in Würzburg in 1965 and grew up in the Mannheim-Heidelberg region. My elementary school was a special school for visually impaired children. But it was clear pretty quickly that I wanted to do my Abitur - at a so-called regular school. That's a term that I don't find very apt. So I went to a school where the vast majority of my classmates had no disabilities. Everyone benefited greatly from this constellation, including my classmates.
When my parents introduced me to high schools, they often experienced reservations about the possibility of being able to teach me adequately at a regular school at all. It was never really about the question of how the lessons could be designed in such a way that I could attend them and get the appropriate support. However, one school was ready to take the "risk" and I passed my Abitur there in 1985.
In 1985 I first studied law in Mannheim and then in 1987 in Heidelberg, but on the side I was very busy with music. Music was the way to inclusion for me. Then I worked in various administrative areas, initially in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. After many stations - home supervision, integration office, forensic psychiatry - I ended up in Brandenburg and became the state representative for the interests of people with disabilities in Potsdam.
During the whole time I worked for the participation of people with disabilities. Obviously Hubertus Heil then noticed me and finally asked me if I would like to accept this position. Of course, I accepted with pleasure. That was my way to the Kleisthaus.
The law faculty of Heidelberg University is housed in a very beautiful building. But it is not particularly barrier-free.
Not only the building, the entire university operations were not barrier-free. Even though I really enjoyed my studies in Heidelberg, it was a real challenge. Because when I started my studies, the university was of course not in any way proactive in the area of inclusion. But I did it. Maybe my school days were the right training for this and now universities are better prepared for the needs of people with disabilities.
So I know exactly what it means to be in a so-called regular school or a university as a person with a disability. If you don't get the support you need, it's pretty tough. That is why I advocate so much that one does not belittle the challenges of inclusive schooling. One should not pretend that letting children with and without disabilities go to school together is enough to achieve inclusion. My aim is to ensure the necessary support services - if possible in the so-called regular school. That's what I'm promoting.
Today it is actually much easier to meet the additional needs due to disabilities at the universities - for example, when it comes to barrier-free access to the university buildings.
That's true. But you shouldn't forget that education systems are not just about learning, but also about social interaction.
For example, it was always clear to me that I was part of the general swimming club. I was also with the Boy Scouts, which is rather unusual for the visually impaired. I just wanted to spend the night in the forest and experience camps with campfires and things like that. The boy scouts have a strange custom at tent camps: each tribe has its own flag, a so-called banner. This banner is guarded at night because other scouts are trying to steal this banner. If that succeeds, it will of course be embarrassing for the stolen. So there are always night watches. In the dark, however, the conditions for seeing are the same for everyone. Nobody saw anything, but I heard much, much better than anyone else. While my friends were still wondering whether a branch had cracked, I could already say: "150 meters away, on the left."
Today I can smile at this anecdote, but for me it has a serious background: you have to pick up children with or without disabilities by their strengths, not their weaknesses.
After the second state examination in Stuttgart, you were only active in the new federal states. Was there a specific reason for this?
It took me a relatively long time to convince an employer to give a job to a blind lawyer with a second state examination. In the meantime I had already started my doctorate in Heidelberg, but finally received an offer from the main welfare office in Rostock, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. That attracted me. I had completed part of my legal clerkship in Jerusalem, but also in Wismar and Greifswald, and during this time I fell a little in love with the Baltic Sea. For me it was also very exciting to work in the new federal states in the 1990s - right after the fall of the Wall. That was a new country that I got to know.
So that was one reason. The other reason was that those responsible at the time were the first to say: “We're giving a blind lawyer from Heidelberg a serious chance.” That's how I finally came to Brandenburg. And I don't regret that at all. Because in particular the state of Brandenburg and its people have shaped me a lot.
The workshops are an important employer for people with disabilities. Many people who have completed two years of vocational training in a workshop then live on the combination of basic security and workshop wages. Many employees there feel bad because their wages are counted towards the basic security. Because of this, they do not feel recognized for what they have achieved. In the federal election campaign it was announced that employees of workshops for the disabled are to be removed from social welfare. Will this idea be pursued further? Do you see a way of preventing your wages from being counted towards the basic security in the near future?
I think that the Federal Participation Act has already changed something in this regard. For example, the employment subsidy was increased significantly. The creation of women's representatives in the workshops or the workshop councils have already set many things in motion here.
We have been discussing the question of removing workshop employees from social welfare for a long time and, of course, I have contacts with the workshop councils in this matter - in Brandenburg to the state working group and now to the federal working group. I would like to keep and expand this contact.
The workshop topic occupies me in very different contexts. Because workshops were definitely criticized in the last state audit report by the United Nations. We are faced with important questions: What will the role of the workshops be in the future? How are the wages in the workshops? I do believe that this will continue to be an issue.
It was just a shame for us that our Christmas bonus was subsequently credited in full and was therefore lost.
Now, of course, in the workshop, as far as the legal framework is concerned, we are in a different situation than on the general labor market. This is a vocational rehabilitation facility. But you are absolutely right that this is a difficult situation for the people who work in the workshops and do something there. I can understand that very well.
In large parts of society, workers with disabilities, and in particular workers in workshops, still have a bad image. One still encounters the prejudice that blind people only make brooms and that in workshops people fold paper boxes or play board games. Do you see a possibility how the workshops with their high-quality products and services can be perceived more strongly as active economic operators?
(smiles): That affects me personally because I do not tie brooms and have never woven baskets, but am active here as a representative. So the situation of people with disabilities in the labor market has changed a lot.
But you are absolutely right that many people - including employers - still have reservations about people with disabilities: They are not as efficient, are more often sick or are automatically irreversible after being hired. These prejudices are all proven to be false. But they are there anyway. In this context, it may be important to come back to the inclusive education system. Those who graduated from high school with me and later took on responsibility for personnel are much more likely to give people with disabilities a chance because they can actually imagine how productive people with disabilities are. Conversely, this means that many employers cannot even imagine, for example, how a person with a severe physical disability can do certain work. And the same applies to workshops. The general population is not at all aware of what kind of skilled work is being done in the workshops. Basically we know far too little about each other.
It is our joint task - including my task as a representative - to ensure that we know more about each other. That sounds easy at first, but it's not at all. Because that means flipping the switches in your mind. People have to be ready to question and correct their images of people with disabilities. Only when we - by that I mean all of us, nobody can be excluded - are ready to reflect on these images, to reflect on our prejudices and to reflect on our conclusions, will we get any further here. Then you took the first step towards understanding inclusion as a process. I strongly encourage this and I believe we are all in a mutual learning process here.
Above all, one thing is important: if we take the phrase “nothing about us without us” seriously, we have to talk to the people who work in the workshops. Then we have to ask you how you envision your future. Whether they feel good, whether they want to stay in the workshops, what perspectives they have for their own lives. That cannot be decided over people's heads.
I can confirm that from my daily work experience. I work at the reception and am therefore the first person you will meet when you enter our workshop - here I can see firsthand how many different tasks are carried out in our company.I am also involved in the accounting of our locksmith's shop. There, for example, high-quality fences, bicycle houses and the like are produced for well-known companies.
Jürgen Dusel: That is absolutely correct. Incidentally, I find it very exciting to vividly visualize the development of the workshops in recent decades. If you look at the changes in disability policy over the past 50 years, you simply have to state how much has changed over this period. But we won't stop here.
There is a beautiful song by Wolf Biermann: "Only those who change remain true to themselves." I am firmly convinced that changes will continue to occur. Especially when I look at the five new federal states, for example, it is the case that today we - thank God - take structures, services and offers for people with disabilities for granted that seemed almost illusory to us 25 years ago. I hope that in 25 years we will find ourselves again in a situation that we can hardly imagine today. To do this, you have to be ready to go through this process of change and actively want the change. But I guarantee you that there will be changes. Service providers are well advised to adapt to these processes. And I know that the Fürst Donnersmarck Foundation does this too.
So: Life is change, life is change. But I would like these changes to be shaped together with people with disabilities. That also has to do with democracy and inclusion - participation is a high value!
Awareness-raising is an important task in this regard. In this context, we noticed that you, as the Federal Commissioner, make extensive use of Facebook and Twitter in particular. What significance do social media have for you?
It's just that the world is changing. In the past you might write letters, today you use social media. Their advantage is simply their speed, which I like very much. I want to explain my activities and activities as transparently as possible. What am I doing? Where am I? What positions do I represent? If you are on Facebook or Twitter this is a very good place to follow.
2019 marks the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. If you look back against this background: What have we achieved together from yours in the last ten or twenty years? In contrast, where do you see the biggest construction sites?
I believe that with the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, the issue of inclusion has again received significant tailwind. It is important to emphasize again and again that with the ratification we have adopted the UN-CRPD as federal law in Germany. It is therefore a matter of current law that obliges all levels of government - the federal government, the federal states and the municipalities!
As a result of the ratification, there were many events at which inclusion was discussed. As a result, the right to inclusion is much better known today than it was ten or fifteen years ago. However, from my point of view, too much has been focused on the education sector and here on inclusive schooling. If we assume that only four percent of people with disabilities were born with their disability, i.e. 96 percent only acquire their disability in the course of their life through accidents or illnesses, the question of schooling in particular is not at all relevant for many people - at most in the role of parent. However, I am always a little irritated by the polemics with which this topic was discussed. I have to say that.
Basically, I try to convey the idea that politics for people with disabilities are first and foremost politics for people. That is why this is a cross-sectional task that affects all departments. Work plays an important role here, but of course also health, living, care or art and culture. That is the one big challenge in the future. In addition, I am currently particularly concerned with certain tasks - for example accessibility. We have now managed to oblige public institutions to be barrier-free. But we have not succeeded in doing the same for private providers of services and products intended for the general public. I consider that to be fatal in an aging society. It is now important to demand that this private sector of providers - for example, restaurants, cinemas, theaters or medical practices - create barrier-free access.
In this context, too, the motto “democracy needs inclusion” is important. Because our Basic Law has a solution to this question. Article 14 of the Basic Law regulates property in Germany. Paragraph 1 guarantees ownership. This is followed by paragraph 2, which literally reads: "Property obliges, its use should also serve the common good." That is my approach. Therefore, I cannot understand at all that we find a situation in Germany in which people with disabilities often do not really have a free choice of doctor. I also don't understand why it is so difficult to convey that people with disabilities naturally want to go to the cinema, theater or a public swimming pool without restrictions.
Finally, I would like to address another very important topic on which we absolutely have to make progress. We have great problems finding accessible, affordable housing. This is a very big issue both in rural areas and in metropolitan areas like Berlin. In particular, people with disabilities, who sometimes also receive social transfer benefits, often cannot find suitable living space. I just want the idea of accessibility to become the standard. That not - let's say - only ten out of a hundred apartments are barrier-free, but are built to be barrier-free. That would be a big step.
What role can organizations like the Fürst Donnersmarck Foundation play in this process?
You have a very important role. First of all, of course, and we didn't talk about that at all, in the area of rehabilitation. Because good rehabilitation is often the prerequisite for successful inclusion.
Awareness-raising also plays another important role. Basically: Inclusion begins in the head, inclusion cannot be prescribed, it has to be social consensus. To do this, we need individuals and organizations who stand up for the right to inclusion. These can be self-advocacy organizations, but also associations of independent welfare or individual organizations such as the Fürst Donnersmarck Foundation, which can also come up with its great projects. The Seehotel Rheinsberg, for example, is a lighthouse in Brandenburg and has led to fundamental changes throughout the city.
Such projects contribute a lot to thinking together about the society in which we actually want to live. We want to live in a society that is diverse, that is appreciative, and that people can contribute to. It is best to fight together for this goal!
We think so too. The Fürst Donnersmarck Foundation is currently also campaigning for an open society under the motto “I love diversity”. On the one hand, it is a question of law. On the other hand, it's a matter of will. What does the society look like in which we want to live?
... and it is a question of forming the heart. An open society, diversity and inclusion cannot be taken for granted. We have to keep working, evolving. And I look forward to continuing on this path with the Fürst Donnersmarck Foundation in the future.
Dear Mr. Dusel, thank you very much for the interview!
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