Thursday, 21st January 2016, will be remembered as the day when the Netherlands finally has adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). With this action the Netherlands becomes one of the last countries in Europe which officially recognises disabled persons’ human rights. However, the process did not go smoothly… Onafhankelijk Leven (Belgium) discussed this news in an interview with Otwin Van Dijk, a wheelchair user and member of the Lower Chamber (Netherlands Parliament).
Hello Otwin, first of all – congratulations! Did you organise a party after the agreement was officialised?
For sure! It was a historical moment for disabled persons in the Netherlands! Finally the UN CRPD was adopted by the Lower Chamber. My amendment regulating that accessibility becomes the norm and inaccessibility – the exception, got a majority vote. In the next years, the Netherlands will be made accessible for disabled persons, thanks to this. It relates to public transport, schools, restaurants and cafés, public buildings, websites, etc. Personally, the adoption of this convention was one of the main reasons why I wanted to become a politician. Since this is achieved now, I’m proud of it.
Could you present yourself a bit? Who are you and what’s your job?
I am Otwin Van Dijk, 40-years-old and married with Karin. For three years I’ve been a member of the Lower Chamber, the Netherlands’ house of representatives, and a spokesman on care. Before that I have been a member of the city council for 8 years in Doetinchem. When I was 18-years-old, I have had an accident which caused a spinal cord injury. This meant that from that moment I had to sit in a wheelchair. Then you know how many things are inaccessible for disabled people – the public transport, many public buildings, restaurants and bars. All, which was so easy before, after the accident turned into a disaster. If you asked me then, I’d say that accessibility should be improved!
Have you always wanted to become a politician, or was it rather a coincidence?
I was raised in a family where we talked a lot about politics. So, it was almost like a part of my education. When you want to arrange and change things, politics are important. After my accident, I got in touch with the Dutch caring system, which is very bureaucratic. For example, I could receive a disability benefit when I was 18, but no proper transport regulation to go to study in order to earn my money independently. I needed this transport regulation because the public transport system isn’t accessible for wheelchair users. For me it was a bit strange to receive a disability benefit but no transport regulation. If you stimulate disabled people to work and study as much as possible, then you get the best out of their capacities and this also saves money for social security. I wrote a letter to the Lower Chamber, which was a success – they changed the regulation. So I and many other disabled people could go to study. Five years later I graduated as a barrister. I noticed that politics make a difference. I became a member of the PvdA, the socialist-democratic party in the Netherlands.
Is it important that disabled people participate in politics?
For sure! I believe in inclusive society. This means that disabled people are visible. That you create, literally, a society where you meet each other. This could be the guy with the mental disability who works as re-stocker of the shelves in the supermarket. Or the blind stand-up comedian who you see on television. And a member of the Parliament in a wheelchair. As a politician with a disability you take in account your own experiences. For me, a care dossier isn’t just a story on paper. You know what it is all about. I think that it would be good more disabled people to get involved in politics.
The Netherlands are known abroad as a progressive country with good social policy. However, lately we also hear other things. How is it possible that it took so long before you adopted this convention?
The Netherlands are a progressive country with good social policy, but sometimes we can be a little short-sighted. “What does it cost us?”, “What are the consequences of the Convention?” – you could hear this kind of remarks for a long time. Before I became a member of the Lower Chamber, I have been the president of ‘Alles Toegankelijk’ (‘Everything Accessible’). This was a cooperation between organizations of patients and associations of entrepreneurs. The goal was to prepare the adoption of the Convention. But also to show in practice that ‘design for all’ isn’t that complicated. Organizations of patients understand that accessibility comes step by step. Organizations of entrepreneurs understand that disabled people are also consumers. But it is a shame that such a rich country as the Netherlands has taken so long to adopt the UN Convention.
What is the aim of your amendment concerning accessibility?
In my opinion, accessibility has to become the norm and inaccessibility the exception. Now often it is the opposite. This means that for instance public transport has to be accessible. Also the same for public buildings, restaurants and bars, museums, etc. Also websites – nowadays they are not accessible for blind people. Did you know that only 7% of the websites in the Netherlands are accessible according the web accessibility guidelines? Of course, unreasonable changes are not necessary. A historic castle that houses a hotel shouldn’t cut down the old tower in order to build an elevator. Often it is sufficient to put for example a small ramp at the doorway of a shop. Most usually it is not necessary to search very far for a solution. If you are planning to renovate your building or change your website within the next year, do take into account the accessibility. From now on it’s an obligation and this way we can make our country accessible for everybody. Isn’t that logical?
Why was there so much resistance against that amendment?
To be precise, the associations of entrepreneurs and the liberals were against the obligation by law to regulate accessibility. They were scared of unreasonable rules and costs for entrepreneurs. The previous weeks, there has been a huge campaign from the organizations of patients for my amendment. The campaign ‘Wij Staan Op!’ (‘We stand up!’) initiated by a group of young disabled adults, was remarkable. They started (via social media) the action #jekomternietin, (#youcannotenter). Disabled people gave a lot of examples from situations concerning inaccessibility. Fantastic examples, like a shop which was first accessible but after renovations it wasn’t anymore. Or a huge staircase to enter a school or a toilet. There was as much resistance as support for the amendment. Then you realise that it became a hot topic.
The ratification is of course an important step, but the real work has yet to come with the implementation. Do you have confidence or do you expect again manoeuvres and political discussions that will slow things down?
Legislation is one thing, but the real work is the practice. People have to know the difference. I expect that we in the Netherlands will understand the message. It should be like that, being one of the last countries to adopt the convention. The government has to make other regulations and they plan to start up an official body to prepare the implementation. There will also be a campaign for raising awareness. I am very impressed when I look at the way other countries deal with this, for example the Belgian campaign ‘#sayyes’. The advantage we have is that in the Netherlands a lot of debates have already taken place and lots of people understand the importance now. Awareness is one of the most important things when you want to work on inclusion and accessibility. This is an aim that we achieved.
Apart from the issues around the UN Convention, we hear alarm bells from disabled people and their organisations from the Netherlands, since the beginning of the previous government legislation. The decentralisation, the participation law, the structural changes of the PGB (personal budget), and other measures that hit disabled people and pushes them back into dependency. Do disabled people pay more for the crisis than others?
The Netherlands are known for their good social policy. But on the other side, there is no other country which spends so much money – in proportion – to care of the elderly and disabled people. The expenses are still increasing. Already several cabinets tried to keep it payable, which I understand. To protect the welfare state you have to keep it payable. Some of the measurements are not smart. For example, the previous cabinet wanted to cut back the personal budget. In my view this was a bad idea. Luckily, it was turned around. Apart from that we have to be aware that sometimes you have to pay more for your care. Elderly people with a good income won’t get so easily aid for cleaning their house for free, since last year. They have to pay by themselves, if they can. But the welfare system in the Netherlands is far too bureaucratic. At the Parliament I try to do something about it, by giving more control to the people and by dealing with the costs.
Otwin, first of all, thank you for the interview. To conclude, do you have a message you want to share with our readers?
I believe very much in an inclusive society, where you can participate whether you have a disability or not, where disabled children can go as much as possible to the same school as other children, where disabled people work as much as possible and are our colleagues, where public transport is accessible for everyone. This is not going to happen by itself. An inclusive society demands an accessible society. You can’t participate if you get stuck behind boundaries. The UN Convention has to be the perspective. It’s fantastic to work on it. This has to be made possible by the work of the government, entrepreneurs, society and last but not least – by people themselves. That’s what you call empowerment. Let’s use the good practices in Europe, so we can learn and enforce each other. Work in progress!