Organizations and public institutions are looking for sustainable solutions to create a diverse workforce, accessible employment opportunities and conditions, and a more equal future where everyone can reach their full potential.
This includes accessible technology, which, during the pandemic, has played an even more important role around inclusion, especially for people with disabilities as a large part of the global workforce shifted to working remotely.
Katrin Langensiepen, a German politician and current Member of the European Parliament (MEP), speaks openly about physical and systemic challenges faced by people with disabilities in education, technology and the workforce across Europe. She is the first female MEP with a visible disability, and joined politics to better advocate for social affairs.
As this week’s European Accessibility Summit is underway, we spoke with Langensiepen about the role of accessible technology in the public sector where she shares the various obstacles and challenges she has faced as an MEP, ranging from inaccessible design in conference rooms, heavy fire doors, additional checks she has to perform before attending meetings and being initially unable to vote in parliament elections.
As the first female with a visible disability in the Parliament, and Vice-Chair of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, you fight for an inclusive Europe. What does this fight look like?
In my first committee meeting in Brussels, the voting process required the members to press a button to cast their vote, something which was not possible for me. It was really frustrating because it meant that I initially couldn’t vote, but because of this, I got my own remote voting machine, which I now use on a regular basis. It has become part of my committee voting process, but it gets more complicated when I have to vote in another committee meeting for a colleague. My experience shows that the needs of people with disabilities are not factored in at the design stage. In general, it’s almost impossible for the average citizen with a disability to vote during elections. For example, town halls where European elections take place are not wheelchair accessible.
How confident and proactive is the European Parliament in the way it tackles accessibility?
The European Parliament is not proactive in their implementation of change and acts only when an issue arises first. There was another meeting in Strasbourg where the setup of the conference room meant that I was unable to move the chair. I initially considered sitting on the table in the Plenary Room, but eventually dropped the idea, and ended up tweeting [about it] during the meeting.
What other accessibility obstacles have you faced in your professional journey?
There was another meeting in the plenary room in Brussels where because of COVID, MEPs had to go to the podium to speak. The podium was equipped with a microphone which was not adjustable to size. This meant that I had to stand on my toes to speak, and my colleague who was in a wheelchair could not speak at the podium at all, something that could have easily been resolved with a cheap portable microphone, but they didn’t think about that. The focus of the meeting was to discuss the challenges people with disabilities face, and it was so embarrassing, as the persons with disabilities had to speak from the corner about the problems of accessibility.
Most public institutions are not only lacking in diversity of the workforce, but they are also often not equipped to support workers with disabilities. Can you tell us more about your experience with this?
I regularly have to perform checks of meeting and conference rooms to ensure that they are suitable and accessible. Before I even get to do my job as an MEP, I am always having to keep that at the back of my mind, and I have to be flexible in the solution they come up with. I have to examine each room with someone to make sure that it’s useable first. The answer to this lies in the structure of organizations and public institutions, and pre-checking design infrastructure to ensure that I can do my job should not be part of my role as an MEP. The barriers are not just physical. For example, the way that reports are written are often not in language that is accessible to others. Some colleagues face challenges because it’s currently not possible to include pictures in report drafts, which would be one of the elements that should be changed. We need to consider using captions, image descriptions for people who are blind, or include different formats of information for people with different disabilities.
As a person with a disability, you are often presented as a champion for the wider community of people with disabilities. What is that like for you?
What drew me to working in the European Parliament is being able to implement social and political change, and I see this as an opportunity. I am also an MEP for trade unions and Syria, but when I tweet about the situation there, I get five likes, but when I tweet about persons with disabilities and my picture with my little voting machine, I have a movie and all television channels suddenly interested.
I’m not a blind person, so I can’t talk for blind people. If I need information on this topic, I call the European Blind Union or if I have a friend who is blind, I reach out to them and ask, “What do you need?” The best way to ensure that those needs are factored in and implemented is by evaluating to what extent products and designs are accessible and involve people with disabilities in that process.
What is Germany’s approach to inclusivity and disability?
In Germany we can see clear segregation of people with disabilities in education and the workforce. From my experience, people with disabilities in Germany are afraid of working in politics and the private sector. There is a German employment initiative of sheltered workshops, which currently employs 300,000 persons with disabilities. Those designated programs are problematic as they separate people with disabilities from mainstream employment. In such workshops, persons with disabilities are protected. I hate that word. Instead, let’s rethink the idea of “socializing” and of “protection” of people with disabilities in society and ask, who are the people with disabilities being protected from? In Germany people with disabilities are often excluded from society, employment, and other opportunities because of such “protective” schemes, which render them largely invisible. I want to know where are the disabled teachers? Where is the disabled bus driver? Where is the disabled person working in a supermarket?
What other obstacles are people with disabilities facing in Germany?
Society doesn’t see people with disabilities as clients or consumers, but as burdens. For example, in a hotel or a restaurant, the staff are frustrated when they see a person with a disability. We are not seen as people with money wanting to pay for a meal. We have to stop seeing persons with disabilities as victims and as people who are suffering. We are also not superheroes; we call that inspiration porn. People will see me in a supermarket paying for groceries and say that it’s just amazing and incredible that I am doing that myself and carrying out daily tasks. I would like to be allowed to make mistakes like other people.
As you were growing up, studying and entering the workforce, what was that like for you?
I’ve never been in that disability bubble, and I grew up in a regular school. I even obtained a regular certificate when I graduated. My parents decided to bring me up in the mainstream world, and you can really see the difference when people with disabilities have been raised in the disability society, which is not their fault. There are institutions and special schools designed to cater for those needs, which get incredible results. This means that those people with disabilities are always protected and always surrounded by other persons with disabilities. When you are educated like this you don’t have to fight for anything, you don’t have the possibility to fail, you can’t make mistakes. This means that persons with disabilities are then scared to go out of that bubble and jump into politics or try to work for Microsoft. It’s a question of socialization and of education.
What is the role of accessible technology in the public sector? What change would you like to see implemented?
We have cities in Germany where town halls are still working only with paper. In such places the digital system doesn’t exist. I am a digital fan, and I think accessibility in terms of technology is having products that are easy to use and operate. Using devices, like PC’s, the questions I consider are practical and consider a physical disability, for example, how heavy is this, can I open it? How can a person without arms use it? For me, carrying things is a problem, so I have to think about the weight of the product. If I am a person who is blind, I need to consider where the information that I need is, or how easy is it to access and start things, such as computers. Another issue for people who are blind is reading information from a website if someone is unbale to see the picture or the video how can they use it. More companies who design these features and services need to start seeing people with disabilities as clients and factor our needs in.
Learn more about the European Accessibility Summit.