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Germany Welcomes EU Year of the Disabled

February 21, 2003

Under the motto 'Get on Board!', the European Union has declared 2003 the Year of People with Disabilities. Raising awareness is on top of the agenda.

The EU wants to make disability not tabooImage: Bilderbox

Around 7 million Germans live with a disability of some kind, and across Europe as a whole some 37 million -- 10 percent of the population -- have been born with or suffered an accident which has rendered them disabled.

Verena Schick is one of them. A year and half ago, the 23 year- old had an accident which rendered her blind. She used to work on restoring books, but the loss of her sight made that impossible.

At first she thought her disability meant she was now doomed to taking "a typical blind job". But with help from the Berlin Blind Association, Verena was given her life back. She now works at Berlin's trendy "Un-sicht bar", a restaurant where guests eat completely in the dark.

It's stories like Verena's that the EU wants to promote, making it clear that being disabled is not a barrier to living life to the full. With €12 million ($13 million) earmarked by the EU, more than 1,000 projects, seminars and awareness-raising campaigns will take place during the Year of the Disabled in 2003, which was officially opened by the German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt in Mageburg, Saxony Anhalt, on Friday.

March for Integration

One of the biggest initiatives is a People's March for integration. The march -- which is to raise awareness of disability and began in Athens at the beginning of the year -- is currently making its way through Austria and will reach Germany in June. It will eventually include in all countries in the EU, ending in Italy in December.

Additionally, a traveling art exhibition "Me, Blue, You" comprising paintings and graphics by Europeans with an intellectual disability will be shown in most major European capitals, including Berlin from April 4 through May 24.

"Our aim is not just to make a difference for disabled people, our aim is to make a difference with disabled people," Anna Diamantopoulou, European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs said in a press statement as the initiative was launched.

Evolving equal opportunities

Germany's equal opportunities legislation is fairly extensive, but it is still evolving. Although an anti-discrimination law is planned, insufficient support in the German parliament has meant it is yet to be implemented. However, since 1994 a clause in the German constitution states no German citizen may be disadvantaged because of any disabilities. And an equal opportunities law has also been in force since 2002. In the future, the German government wants to add to it, planning to make all public transport, and sport and social events accessible to disabled people.

The European Union, meanwhile, is going full steam ahead with its own equal opportunities legislation. This year, the European Disability Forum will strengthen its efforts to ensure a proper implementation of the European Directive on equal treatment in the workplace and also plans to push through new comprehensive EU anti-discrimination legislation, which will cover equal opportunities in transport as well as education, and housing.