In Remembrance of Bengt Lindqvist

In Remembrance of Bengt Lindqvist

Another great man has left this world, Bengt Lindqvist, a man who has made an incredible difference for you and me, for disabled people worldwide. Bengt will be missed by many. Thomas Hammarberg in the article below raises awareness on who Bengt was and the work he carried out. This article was first published on the webpage of the project’s website of the Swedish Disability Federation. The project is called ‘from Snack till Verkstad’, or in English –  ‘From Talk to Action’. It is a three-year project with the goal to ensure that Sweden is living up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Jamie Bolling – ENIL Director


Thomas Hammarberg thanks Bengt Lindqvist:

In early December, the latter Swedish Minister and Rights Activist Bengt Lindqvist passed away, 80 years old. For those of us who got to know him – here in Sweden but also in other parts of the world – Bengt was an innovator who influenced our views of humanity and managed to push forward key reforms that gave rights to individuals who previously tended to be bullied and discriminated against.

His disability – an eye disease which started leaving tracks when he was eight years old left Bengt blind in his early teens – but did not hinder him from his studies, a career as a teacher, leading roles in the disability movement and a political career. As blind he was the first in the Swedish parliament, and the first in Europe to a ministerial chair. Bengt’s efforts now seem even more remarkable considering that he began his mission when today’s technical aids did not exist and people with disabilities were not accorded the rights that are now obvious.

Fortunately, Bengt was persuaded to write memoirs. The book with the ironic title Blind Governance (Blindstyre) was published four years ago. There, he described how childhood was affected by the declining eyesight and the help he received to overcome the difficulties that were piling up. It is made clear that the support affected Bengt’s view of humanity and, later, his political beliefs. The meeting with his future wife Gun and their cooperation (literally) became central for the potential to influence others.

“Deaf people lived isolated ‘

The book is also a history of the changes that actually occurred. At that time there were obstacles everywhere that impeded or made impossible participation of disabled people in society, Bengt pointed out:

“Deaf people lived in isolation without interpreter services. We with visual impairment had very little access to books and newspapers. People with intellectual impairment were still closed in institutions, and work on making the environment accessible for the physically disabled had not yet begun in earnest. In working life disabled were widely referred to a few traditional occupations. ”

Certainly there are still problems remaining and they are clearly mentioned in the memoirs. But concrete progress has been made and Bengt contributed perhaps more than any other. He acted purposefully and with tremendous energy from the positions to which he was appointed – president of the National Federation of the Visually Impaired, chairman of the Disability Federation’s Central Committee, member of parliament and member of the Government and, finally, the role as the UN rapporteur.

But most important was that Bengt in the roles contributed to the development of a position, an ideology that proved absolutely critical to improve the situation of people with disabilities – but also reflected a view of humanity that has inquired even wider consequences.

Human rights apply to all

Bengt proceeded from the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the very idea that rights apply to all. Constantly he pointed out that the demands of justice, equality and solidarity were about all, without exception. And that it was the duty of society to ensure that everyone, as far as ever possible, could exercise their rights.

It is this principle which made possible the reforms that emerged: better technical aids, expanded opportunities for communication, improved accessibility, closing of inhuman institutions and access to personal assistance. With time within the Social Democratic Party, Bengt was seen by some leading members as too “left”. He had staunchly opposed compromise with the neo-liberal tendencies. Three titles in the memoir capture his position: egalitarianism became my mantra, the religion of the liberals and the Social Democratic Party indulgence. Until the end, Bengt expressed criticism on how care and schooling had been opened to the market forces.

International assignments

Bengt had to leave the political mandates but thus was given the possibility of increased international engagement. He was asked by the UN to participate in the work to develop standard rules for disability rights – equal opportunities and participation in society. When these were adopted his task became to encourage governments worldwide to really respect the rules.

Bengt traveled to many countries, pressured policymakers and encouraged the emergence of organizations of persons with disabilities. It was a work that over time allowed the UN to design the binding convention for the rights of people with disabilities – the UN CRPD adopted by the General Assembly in 2006.

This was historic. At last it had been established that persons with disabilities should not be treated as objects of charity but actually had rights like everyone else. The person who laid the foundation for this recognition was not least Bengt Lindqvist.

By Thomas Hammarberg,

Former Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary General of ‘Save the Children’ and ‘Amnesty International’

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