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Key Note Speech von Nationalratspräsident Wolfgang Sobotka anlässlich der Zero Project Conference 2019, 22.2.2019

Freitag, 22. Februar 2019

Your Royal Highness!

Dear Martin Essl!

Ladies and Gentlemen!

I would like to thank you for your invitation to speak to you today. The Zero Project Conference in Vienna organised by the Essl Foundation has become a great tradition. It raises awareness for disabled people and their specific needs. I see it as my personal duty to be here.

We live in a time of change: bigger, faster, further is the measure of things, accompanied by an overall presence of Social Media. However, we should not forget about those closest to us and among them people with disabilities of whatever kind. If we want an inclusive society, we need to ensure that people with disabilities participate in society as a whole, and especially in political life. We must also do everything we can to ensure that they are able to shape their lives in a selfdetermined way.

As President of the National Council, I would like to raise the question: What can parliaments do to enable persons with disabilities to participate in the political process?

Parliament is at the heart of democracy. It is precisely here that barrier-free access must be guaranteed. First, because parliament is a role model – laws are made here. Second, because it is a meeting place and we have to ensure access for our citizens – including disabled people. Third, because parliament also has the task to bring democracy closer to the citizens, for example through democracy workshops. It is therefore important to allow all citizens to participate in democracy education offered by parliament.

Parliament has three key roles that affect disabled people in different ways.

1) The primary role of parliament is to make laws. These laws have implications for people with disabilities. Sometimes directly, but much more often indirectly. Therefore, parliament must take into account the specific needs of people with disabilities in the legislative process, also due to international obligations.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a milestone in this context. This treaty requires all UN Member States to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. It sets a common standard in legislation and enforcement.

The protection and promotion of rights of disabled persons are high on Austria’s agenda:

  • In order to implement the UN convention, Austria has drawn up the National Action Plan on Disability.
  • The current Austrian government has made barrier-free participation for people with disabilities a main priority.
  • Let me quote from the coalition agreement: “People with disabilities must be able to participate without barriers in our society, economy and public life as a whole. Individual autonomy of people with disabilities must therefore be supported in all areas.”

2) Apart from the place where laws are made, parliament also is an institution with its own administration. As such, parliaments are places of actual physical encounters. People from all over society come and go here every day. These include people with disabilities.

The Austrian Parliament is currently being renovated. The two-sense principle will be applied for the renovated building. This means that an optical as well as acoustic or tactile orientation aid will be provided. Let me mention a few adaptations that are planned:

  • For those with limited mobility, there will be barrier-free lift facilities, lifting platforms and stair lifts, barrier-free toilets and showers.
  • There will be eight wheelchair places in the plenary hall.
  • Door buttons and card readers will provide automatic door openings. 
  • For the hearing impaired, there will be inductive hearing systems.
  • Visually impaired people are supported in entering the building. 
  • Floor markings are applied in particular on main routes.

3) Parliament is also a place of political and democratic communication. Like everyone else, people with disabilities need to understand how democracy works, how laws are created and affect them. A blind person has to be able to read on the homepage what his MPs have decided. People with difficulties in comprehension must be able to follow the political debate.

In order to meet the specific needs of disabled people, the Austrian Parliament has taken the following action:

  • The parliament’s web content is largely barrier-free. Almost the entire site can be interpreted by screen readers.
  • Sign language has been used since 2009. Plenary sessions are interpreted.
  • Parliament is also striving for accessibility in the written language.
  • For people with reading or spelling difficulties we provide information in “Easy German”.

This is just to give you an idea of what parliaments can do to support people with disabilities.

The focus of this conference is on independent living and political participation. These aspects are the core elements of our democracy. We all strive for a self-determined and a good life. Only democracy and political participation enable us to turn theses aspirations into reality for everyone. And if I say everyone, I mean everyone, including people with disabilities.

Let us keep in mind that a society is judged by how it treats all of its citizens, especially those with specific needs. All steps taken to protect and promote the rights of disabled people make our societies more inclusive.

Some progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Let us move forward together!