EU State of the Union: Why no sign Language interpretation?

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union address left Katrin Langensiepen speechless and angry; not because of its content, but because the view of 30 million Europeans were being ignored
Sebastian Gollnow/DPA/PA Images

By Katrin Langensiepen

Katrin Langensiepen (DE, Greens/EFA) is a vice chair of the European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee (EMPL)

15 Sep 2021

The discrepancy between symbolic and lived inclusion could not have been more striking this morning in Strasbourg. On the one hand, a Paralympian sportswoman, a woman with a severe disability is honoured for her “courage”, - reduced to waving and smiling and to serving as a metaphor for the European Union.

On the other hand, the European Parliament was unable to answer our request to organise international sign language interpretation and therefore more than 30 million deaf people were excluded from following European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech.

This was a speech concerning all Europeans and was translated into several EU languages, just not into international sign language. This is not only highly discriminatory, it’s also extremely embarrassing for the EU and its democratic values.

Earlier this year, the European Commission adopted its new Disability Strategy 2021-2030, in which the EU clearly committed itself to the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and proclaiming itself a "Union of Equality".

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, access to communication and information is a human right that EU Member States must guarantee.

What signal then do the European Institutions send out to Member States and to EU citizens if they do not follow these principles; if they are themselves breaking human rights?

"It is the 21st century, but still people with disabilities are not everywhere seen as an important part of the democratic discourse, where they are given the opportunity to participate. As democrats, as Parliamentarians and as Europeans, this is what we are responsible for, the participation of all in the democratic discourse"

Particularly during these pandemic times, Member States have learned how crucial it is to make information accessible to all.

In order to involve everybody in the democratic process we must also make politics accessible. Persons with disabilities are still highly underrepresented in our Parliaments. Diversity means also thinking of them.

It is the 21st century, but still people with disabilities are not everywhere seen as an important part of the democratic discourse, where they are given the opportunity to participate. As democrats, as Parliamentarians and as Europeans, this is what we are responsible for, the participation of all in the democratic discourse.

As much as Paralympic fencing champion Bebe Vio's life story inspires me, her heroic and courageous story unfortunately does not compensate for the fact that deaf people were systematically excluded from today’s speech and hence participation.

When we asked for sign language interpretation, the European Parliament’s administration replied that this could not be done on such short notice. I wonder just how complicated it is to organise a sign language interpreter for an hour?

Every day in the Parliament, meetings are translated by interpreters. Without them parliamentary business would not run smoothly. True inclusion in our democratic institutions means that we must also provide sign language interpretation to make political debates transparent and accessible to all.

"When we asked for sign language interpretation, the European Parliament’s administration replied that this could not be done on such short notice. I wonder just how complicated it is to organise a sign language interpreter for an hour?"

The fact that an extra request has to be made for this alone is incomprehensible. It should be automatically included, like the translation into all other languages.

Above all, this is again an example of how little people with disabilities are thought about. And how important it is that people with disabilities are more involved in processes so that their concerns do not stay ignored.

We in the European Parliament’s Disability Intergroup ask for Disability Focal Points in all institutions, the mainstreaming of disability rights in all EU policy fields and also to bring inclusion forward on the administrative level.

Sign language is still an exception, the speaker's desk in Brussels is not height adjustable and our European Schools are still not inclusive.

What we need is for the European Parliament to become a proponent of inclusion, not an opponent of it.

Read the most recent articles written by Katrin Langensiepen - A matter of human rights

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