Editorial written by Jacob Wittorff, OIFE Board Member

Jacob WittorfFor years, I just took the world as it was.  When faced with a flight of stairs or other obstacles, I simply shrugged and turned around. But at some point, I realized it doesn’t have to be this way. The world can look different. One of the things that helped me recognize this, was traveling in the USA.

In Denmark, where I live, it often feels like we put the welfare state on a pedestal. Lots of Danes find it hard to believe that there are places where people with disabilities or other challenges, have better opportunities to participate in society than here in our Nordic welfare states. Therefore, Danes are often surprised when I tell them that accessibility for wheelchair users is often much better in the USA than here in the very Nordic welfare states, which progressive American politicians like to highlight as a role model.

Part of the reason for the high accessibility is The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990. Among many other things, it mandates that all public buildings must be accessible to people with disabilities. As shown in the excellent American documentary Crip Camp, this legislation is the result of a years-long rights struggle.

Traveling in the USA has always been a pleasure for me because all hotels have accessible rooms (albeit often of varying quality). When I encounter a staircase in the USA, I automatically look for the elevator or the ramp. In Denmark, I often prepare to turn around and go home. And that has happened quite often. A few years ago, a survey showed that over half of the shops on the main shopping street in Copenhagen are inaccessible for people in wheelchairs.

Let me stress: This is not meant to be a lament. I’m immensely grateful to have been born in Europe, and perhaps especially in the Nordics, where among many other things, I have access to free healthcare and receive modern mobility aids paid for by the public.

The Icelanding entrepreneur Haraldur Thorleifsson, who was born with muscular dystrophy and sold his company to Twitter a few years ago, has taken matters into his own hands. He started his own project, Ramp Up Iceland, with the original ambition to fund the construction of 1000 ramps in Iceland. Recently, he expanded the project. With help from the NGO Start Small, he is now trying to spread his project to the rest of Europe, initially to three yet unnamed major European cities.

Haraldur Thorleifsson’s project is commendable. However, it also raises the question of whether it’s time for Europe to emulate the USA by assuming political leadership and regulating this area.

A small step was taken in 2019 when the European Accessibility Act was passed, focusing mainly on making digital products and services user-friendly for people with disabilities.

But isn’t it about time we introduce a European With Disabilities Act, something on par with the American ADA?

A piece of legislation ensuring that we, as EU citizens with disabilities, can move and travel freely, whether we live in Helsinki in the north or Lisbon in the south.

Next summer, as we face an election to the EU Parliament, there is hardly a better time to ask our candidates what they intend to do to improve accessibility for EU citizens with disabilities.