Helga Stevens was the first Flemish deaf person in Belgium to receive a law degree in 1993 and to register as attorney with the Brussels Bar. She obtained her Licentiate in Law degree at the Catholic University of Leuven in 1993 and her Master of Laws degree (LL.M) at the University of California at Berkeley, USA in 1994. A full time politician since 2004 for N-VA, Helga Stevens was re-elected into the Flemish Parliament in 2009. She is also a ‘Community Senator’ (since 2007) meaning that she sits both in the Flemish Parliament and the Senate. During the July 2010 elections for the Senate Helga scored as the 10th most popular politician in Flanders and 16th most popular politician in Belgium. She continues to have a double political mandate as ‘Community Senator’. Helga Stevens was Third Vice President of the Belgian Senate from July 2010 till October 2011.
Before being elected, Helga worked as director for the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) (www.eud.eu). She was also President of EUD from 2005 till 2007.
Hi Helga, when did you first know you wanted to go into politics?
I never really had the idea of entering politics as this was a different and unknown world for me. I did grow up in a politically aware family as my parents both were/still are active in the Flemish movement and the related party Volksunie (VU), the predecessor of N-VA. I did follow Belgian and Flemish politics in the newspaper, when I was young but the media at that time was largely inaccessible, except for one news programme on the public broadcast that was subtitled through teletext.
When the VU set up a working group to look at the problems and obstacles people with disabilities were facing, in more depth, I was already working as an attorney in Brussels. Through my father I was asked to join that working group around 1995. We met monthly and tried to develop a vision paper regarding disabled people.
In 1999 there were elections for the federal parliament (House and Senate) and VU was looking for candidates. Hence, this was the first time I was asked to stand for election. And that is how I rolled into politics, as I was always asked to stand for election. First from ineligible places, but when I was asked again for the third time, I asked for a better place on the list, so that I could get elected, viewing the amount of time and energy I had already invested into the party.
In the Independent Living movement we think that self representation is very important. Disabled politicians are still quite rare. Why is that?
There is a variety of reasons for that. It will lead us too far to explain all the reasons but the main problem is that disabled people are generally invisible. And if you are invisible, then you are politically not interesting. Disability is not sexy nor controversial. Few people care about disability and disabled people. That is our real handicap! Disabled people have to come out of the closet and claim their place in society, like the female movement, the black movement and the gay & lesbian movement have done and are still (!) doing. But the difference between the disability movement and these other movements is that ‘reasonable accommodation’ has to be in place first before we fully claim our rights and be full-fledged citizens. Our problem is not just prejudice, but also the inaccessibility of society in general which hinders us greatly in becoming citizens e.g. deaf people cannot negotiate with governments and politicians if there is nobody who can interpret between sign language and spoken language. The eternal question is who will pay for that? I am sure this sounds familiar to you and that you can find countless other examples…
Politics is also about looks and sometimes it does not help to have a disability as it does not fit you into the right box. That is something we can regret but that is the way it is, unfortunately.
You being a deaf person, having the lived experience of a disability yourself, do you consider that as an advantage when it comes to disability policy?
It does help to understand the matter, but it is not really a prerequisite as everyone has a disability in one way or another! 😉 But if you do it seriously, it could give you an advantage in this way that it will be harder for people to ignore you or to downplay what you are saying as you are speaking as someone who has experienced it all herself/himself.
Why are you interested in the European level?
I have always been interested in European and international politics. These levels increasingly influence national and local politics. Europe is at the moment not popular, but people are forgetting that their own national governments built and made the European Union that exists today! No decision passes at the EU level without the approval of the EU Council of Ministers in which each national government minister has a seat and a vote! The European Union has brought us peace in Europe and contributed to the social welfare state we know today. Due to the financial and economic crisis this welfare state is now cracking, but I am sure that we will overcome that. Otherwise there will be no more Europe and then we will be worse off.
Is it important that people vote for the EU Elections?
Absolutely, as the European Parliament is slowly gaining more and more power, standing its feet vis-à-vis the European Commission and the EU Council of Ministers. And as such is partly closing the EU democratic deficit/gap. The European Parliament does have an impact on your daily lives, like your national government has. That impact is not always obvious, but it is there! By your vote, you can influence the future of Europe!
In many European countries austerity measures and cuts on public expenditure are hitting disabled people disproportionally hard. In times when the Independent Living movement could be expecting progress towards full implementation of our rights as spelled out in the UN CRPD, the hard reality is that we are going backwards, pushed into more dependency, marginalisation and institutionalisation. What can you advise us to counter this?
This is dramatic. It is important to show that living independently in your own house, in your community, together with appropriate assistance is more effective than locking up people with disabilities in separate institutions and in sheltered employment. Cuts in public expenditure which hurt disabled people disproportionally are unacceptable. However, if governments have to take such austerity measures as the Greek government did, under pressure, then they unfortunately do not have much choice as everyone in Greece is being hit very hard by the crisis. But if these measures hit disabled people more than other groups in society, then this is blatant discrimination. But the weakest groups are always hit the hardest since they are often the least able to protest loudly, unfortunately. So disabled people should seek allies with other groups to avoid this and governments must be made aware that disabled people should not be hit disproportionally hard.
Often politicians on the EU level tell us that the effect of cuts on disabled people, and even disability policy in general, is a matter of the member states. Do you agree with that?
That is a good question! Social security and consequently disability policy is largely a matter that belong to the member states. There is very little in the EU treaties that give the European Commission and Parliament the power to intervene in social security and disability politics. However, the principles of equality and non-discrimination are enshrined into the EU treaties as well. So taking this into account, the EU has been able to act to move towards (more) equality between men and women, by outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender in e.g. wage policy, pensions, insurance etc. In this view, the EU, if they really want, could do more to protect the rights of disabled people to full inclusion and equal participation in society. For example, I refer to the Council Directive from 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupationdisabled people (Council Directive 2000/78/EC). If the EU can accept and enforce the “Six Pack” measures with regard to balancing national budgets, then with similar political will, the EU could do more for disabled people. But there seems to be no political will…
ENIL believes that a strong signal from Europe towards the member states that public expenditure for disabled people should be safeguarded from austerities and cuts is very necessary. That is why we have been trying to realise a resolution from the European Parliament for several years. Although we get a lot of moral support from many MEPs there is no real legislative initiative from the European Parliament on this issue. So, can we conclude that the rights and living conditions of disabled people and their families are not important for the European Parliament?
I am not a MEP at the moment so it is hard to judge what has gone ‘wrong’. Morally speaking, the European Parliament should have passed this resolution. But again, I do not have enough information to understand what has really happened. Perhaps also due to the political ‘game’ between some member states this resolution was blocked?
If you get elected can we count on you to help us counter the effect of ‘crisis measures’ on our rights and lives?
Yes, absolutely! Disabled people should not be paying the bill for the crisis! They are already in a weak and often difficult position and should be protected.
What are the priorities you want to work on as an MEP if you get elected?
Equal treatment for disabled people in all spheres of life (education, employment, housing, culture & sport, etc), a fully accessible society (infrastructure, transport, etc), empowerment of disabled people so that they can become full-fledged citizens and participate fully in our society and enjoy the same rights as any other citizen. More specifically I will try to work on insurance and discrimination and on privacy rights, among others.
On May 5th, the European day for Independent Living, ENIL and the Belgian member Onafhankelijk Leven vzw are organizing the Walk of Shame followed by an international Press Conference on the Stop Disability Cuts campaign. You are very welcome to walk with us. Will you join us? Do you think it is important that we disabled people come out in the streets to claim our rights?
Oh yes, this is very important! Disabled people are often invisible. And if a citizen is invisible, then no one will pay attention to them. So they have to get out to the streets to claim their rights and become visible citizens with rights like any other citizen.
Is there anything you want to say to the ENIL and Independent Living Movement Activists?
Don’t give up! Persist and insist! And don’t worry about what others think of you. It is your life and only you can decide for yourselves! You only live once!
Thank you Helga