Katrin Langensiepen interview: Nothing about us without us

The only woman with a visible disability among 705 MEPs, Katrin Langensiepen tells Lorna Hutchinson that the fight for diversity, inclusion and dignity is an uphill struggle, but one that is worth waging to achieve a Union of Equality for all.
Katrin Langensiepen | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

22 Jun 2021

Disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, people with disabilities have been largely forgotten by society, says Katrin Langensiepen. “It has been a tough time and it still is so tough - we are just not on the radar.”

The German-born Greens/EFA deputy says that after the Coronavirus outbreak in Europe began in March 2020, there was a brief window of time in which people with disabilities came under the spotlight as a vulnerable community in the face of a deadly virus. “When COVID hit, the media took the time to interview us and listen to us. But later on, persons with disabilities died in institutions because they were locked up, like in prison.”

She says that in her native Germany, pandemic triage - in which persons with disabilities experience discrimination in access to healthcare, based on their perceived health status - was “kind of an open secret.” She adds, “I know of several people with [the genetic condition] Trisomy  who couldn’t get into a hospital because the hospitals said that they didn’t admit persons with disabilities.”

“When it comes to diversity, companies don’t have persons with disabilities on their radar because they have never met one. We need to reach a point where a person with disabilities is seen as a colleague, a partner, a client - not as a burden”

After her election to the European Parliament in 2019, Langensiepen says that during her first committee session, she quickly discovered that voting would be an issue “as I couldn’t reach the little voting buttons.” She explains, “I said that I needed a special machine, so while the Parliament staff were looking for something, I managed to find a little machine with a cable attached, like some kind of device from the 1970s – it’s actually pretty funny. So this device has to be brought to me every time I have to vote.”

“That was in Brussels, and in Strasbourg, I had a problem with the chairs - I couldn’t move the heavy blue chair in the plenary room and in some committee rooms.  So, they took their time, it took a while, and I even had to Tweet about it, saying, ‘Guys, I need a chair, please. Even if you have something in an old and dusty back room, I’ll take it.’ The fact of the matter is, I want to sit when I want, and I want to be independent.”

Though Langensiepen says of the Parliament’s general accessibility infrastructure for persons with disabilities, “the basics are okay; it is accessible for a wheelchair user,” she has encountered other issues, such as the lock on the toilet room doors. “If I want to lock the toilet room door, the key is too strong; I can’t turn it around, so, I can’t lock the door. It may seem like a teeny tiny issue but it is a very important one.”

In March of this year the European Commission unveiled its long-awaited EU Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021 to 2030, which aims to pave the way for a barrier-free Europe and to empower people with disabilities so that they can enjoy their rights and participate fully in society and the economy. So how satisfied is she with the goals and the priorities of the Strategy, against the backdrop of persons with disabilities still facing considerable barriers and having a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion? Langensiepen says it is lacking “clear targets, clear timelines, and directives.”

“I know of several people with [the genetic condition] Trisomy who couldn’t get into a hospital because the hospitals said that they didn’t admit persons with disabilities”

She adds, “Yes, they want to mainstream disability and make the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) mainstream in all fields, but where are the extra strategies more than 10 years after the UNCRPD ratification?” The UNCRPD, which entered into force in May 2008, is a human rights instrument which reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Langensiepen says that while she welcomes the Strategy’s focus on civil rights, digitalisation and participation, she is unclear, however, about the Commission’s proposal for a European Disability Card. “This Disability Card, I have so many questions about it. For example, what does it look like? What can I do with it? Is it only for leisure or can I travel inside the European Union with my personal assistant?”

Langensiepen tweeted recently that people with disabilities are “neither super-heroes, nor are they victims; they are people with a disability with the same rights as people without a disability.” Yet, despite increasing measures to foster inclusion, people with disabilities often struggle to find jobs, with less than 50 percent in employment. Asked if people with disabilities will ever truly achieve the same rights as people without, Langensiepen says she is hopeful.

“I’m always optimistic; otherwise, I couldn’t do this job. I don’t say that you have to become a member of the European Parliament, but you should have the possibility of becoming a member of the European Parliament. A person with disabilities should have the right to fail, to have a bad experience, and to grow in strength to reach the goal that they are aiming for. Real inclusion means an accessible, barrier-free society where all people have the freedom to work and to travel.” Langensiepen adds, “We are not asking for something special; we just want to have the rights based on the UNCRPD.”

As vice-chair of Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, Langensiepen says there has to be a better alternative to sheltered workshops – organisations or environments that employ people with disabilities separately from others. She explains, “Sheltered workshops are against the UNCRPD, full stop. Actually, they should be forbidden.”

She wants to see more inclusion of people with disabilities in workplaces, thereby dispensing of the need for sheltered workshops, arguing, “It is a question of how we can support companies. We have to start in the education sector; not only in schools, but we have to teach it in universities. We need professors with disabilities, for example. We need someone with a disability in human resources. When it comes to diversity, companies don’t have persons with disabilities on their radar because they have never met one. We need to reach a point where a person with disabilities is seen as a colleague, a partner, a client - not as a burden.”

Asked what the European Parliament and the EU in general can do to better promote diversity in the European institutions, Langensiepen says that much of the onus is on national parliaments to foster diversity as a starting point. “The problem is that we are not allowed to create quotas. In Germany, for example, it is against the law - we tried to have a quota of 50 percent women in the parliament, which was a parity law. In France it was possible, but in Germany it was against the law, so, it makes diversity a lot more difficult to achieve. It is a question of how diverse the political parties are willing to be. You only have to look at Annalena Baerbock, who wants to become the first Green German Chancellor.”

“Real inclusion means an accessible, barrier-free society where all people have the freedom to work and to travel. We are not asking for something special; we just want to have the rights based on the UNCRPD”

“She’s a young woman, a woman with children, and you see how aggressive her enemies are. She has to defend herself against all these ridiculous accusations, such as the discussion about her CV, and there are corrupt conservatives accusing her of not mentioning this or that and blaming her for all sorts. To these politicians I say, ‘please, check your own party first.’ With Annalena Baerbock we are talking about a white, female candidate; we are not talking about a black woman, a disabled woman - just look how far away we are from a clear and a real diverse parliament.”

As the EU starts to emerge from the Coronavirus crisis, with the vaccination campaign well underway and restrictive measures easing across the continent, Langensiepen hopes that the bloc gleans valuable lessons from the past 15 months. She explains, “I hope that they finally learn that we need an inclusive Europe, and that in a social Europe, we need social standards. We are talking about free movement and a free and open labour market - as well as a free financial market. The money can move around, and the same should apply to the people in the European Union. If we have no social Europe and we have no social standards and we have no social safety net, we won’t be able to manage the next crisis whenever it comes.”

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - MEPs come out in force against Hungarian anti-LGBTIQ law at Budapest Pride

Share this page