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The welfare state needs protection against discrimination of disabled people

Berit Vegheim, lobbyist

A common attitude, in particular among the Nordic welfare states, is that the development towards a society equal for all is steadily moving in the right direction. Disabled people often meet this attitude when they point out negative features of the society's development or make complaints because of differential treatment by employers or the service apparatus. Several countries are more developed than Norway when it comes to ensure better conditions for disabled people. One of the reasons for this is that in our country there is a exaggerated belief that the welfare state model will always safeguard a continuos development. And the welfare state has no doubt had an important impact on improving the position of disabled people in society. Thus it is easy to believe that it is merely a question of time and continuous focus on information- and awareness raising activities, before full participation and equality for disabled people becomes a reality.

This way of thinking is most obvious in Denmark, where the emphasis is made on pedagogical instruments, and antidiscrimination legislation is rejected for the reason that one does not wish to make the whole population criminals. But also in Norway there is much resistance against making use of legal instruments to strengthen participation and equality for disabled people. In contrast to for instance USA and Great Britain Norway was late in securing disabled people against discrimination concerning employment in the labour market. Last summer disabled people were included in the Norwegian Labour environment Act, S:55 A, which forbids discrimination at employment, and this only happened after a thorough survey on whether disabled people really had a need for such protection along the same line as other groups in society.

A common argument in Scandinavia against the introduction of antidiscrimination legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, is that it introduces a break with the Scandinavian welfare model. By this is meant that ADA and similar legislation is special legislation emphasising individual rights, while we in the Nordic countries secure welfare through universal rights. The reason for this misunderstanding is probably that one refers to social policy and not the fact that disabled people, like the rest of the population, are affected by the policy in all fields of society.

In Norway the government has had a monopoly on many services that are private in the USA, and thus the conditions for controlling and managing the development has been present in our country. However, we observe that new barriers constantly occur that exclude and prevent people who do not function in an optimal way, from making use of basically necessary services like other people.

The Norwegian Manneråk Commission proved that the development within the field of transport is in particular excluding, and that there is a great risk that disabled people may be excluded from the communication- and information society as well, if stronger measures are not made than is the case today. What characterises many of the areas where the gap is particularly big, is that there are no regulations, or that legislation is too diffuse, there is a lack of sanctions or that the legislation is not implemented strongly enough.

In my opinion Norwegian politics is dominated by the obvious absence of a will to govern within sectors that to a high degree affect the frameworks for participation. This is obvious in stated policy, of which the most recent example is the National Plan of Transport, where it is stated that other instruments than legal are more proper. This lack of will to govern is even harder to understand where politics systematically ignores the fact that people function in different ways. The transport sector is responsible for enormous investments in equipment and infrastructure, and if this field is not properly controlled, the result may be barriers that will give disabled people lots of problems in the decades to come.

In Norway controlling instruments like tenders, concessions and guidelines are to a very limited degree used to manage the development. In antidiscrimination legislation such demands are vital, and it is regarded as discrimination when providers and producers of goods and services cannot offer disabled people the same or equal services. Today's policy seems to imply that the government and parliament still believe in the "strategy of the benevolent will" to ensure that lead the development in the right direction, a notion that now should have been powerfully rejected by the Manneråk Commission.

The lack of regulations has lead to the mushrooming of special arrangements and compensatory measures during the years. This illustrates that the Norwegian welfare state could afford to repair the consequences of excluding arrangements when there was a need for such measures. However, such a solution is very unfortunate because special measures are very expensive. Such measures also easily lose legitimacy when there is a need to cut down on budgets.

The Manneråk Commission established that there is no longer a question of mistakes when the variety of the human dimension is constantly forgotten. Then it concerns basic values of society. When such values have been allowed to dominate, notwithstanding the highest ideals on paper, it is time that we recognise that disabled people are also discriminated against in the Norwegian welfare state. It is also high time to realise that there is a limit to how far you can get using traditional, social policy measures. A legally based prohibition against discrimination does not imply a violent break with the welfare model. First and foremost we have been implementing a policy of distribution in Norway and there will also in the future be a need for this. In contrast, the legislation will make it possible to control sectors that never before operated with a view for different levels of functioning between people, and to an increasing degree is dominated by competition and private actors.

Berit Vegheim is a lobbyist and the representative of the Norwegian Federation of Organisations of Disabled People, FFO, in the Manneråk Commission.

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