“It’s normal to be different”

Elisabeth Wacker is Professor of the Sociology of Diversity at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). In this interview on the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, she talks about her work as the Chairperson of the Scientific Advisory Board for the German Federal Government’s report on the conditions of life of persons with disabilities and the role of diversity research at a Technical University.

Prof. Wacker, December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Do you think an annual day of this kind serves a useful purpose?

This day raises awareness of the fact that it is normal to be different. That is a good thing. But if we do not look beyond our superficial impressions, we may think that we know who “the disabled” are. That is where the danger lies. “Persons with disabilities” are not a homogeneous group.

What do you mean by that?

They are in fact just as diverse as the rest of the population. They are men and women, younger and older people, and individuals with different preferences and habits. While some are born with limitations, others acquire a disability in the course of their lifetime. It is important not to think only of “blindness”, “deafness” and the “different-ness” that comes with these conditions, but rather of people who have these limitations and their circumstances and the opportunities they face in life.

„When Germany signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, people probably thought that everything was quite exemplary in this country.”- Prof. Elisabeth Wacker

You are chairing the Scientific Advisory Board for the Federal Government’s report on the conditions of life of persons with disabilities for the third time. How advanced is Germany with regard to participation?

Protection against disadvantages is already enshrined in the Basic Law. Many benefits are also provided to help with integration. When the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified 10 years ago, Germany was very quick to sign it. People probably thought that everything was quite exemplary in this country. But an assessment of the everyday opportunities for participation in society showed that, despite the laws, there are still plenty of obstacles. In other words, disabilities still result in disadvantages.

For example?

Anyone who looks at the statistics will see that persons with disabilities do not have equal access to the labor market. It’s not enough to look at available measures such as hiring quotas. You also have to make sure that they have the desired effects. By the way, in reality far greater numbers of people are affected by this than those covered by the official statistics. Those only count persons with an official disability ID. In our research, we assume a quota of approximately 18%, as opposed to the officially recognized 9% of the population.

„To me, working on these participation reports is more inspiring than frustrating.”- Prof. Elisabeth Wacker

Is it frustrating for you to keep publishing disability reports where many areas show serious shortcomings?

I see it as a scientific task. We provide information needed for the necessary transformations. Through analysis, we can show where the obstacles are, which groups of people are impacted most, which areas present opportunities for development, and where the leverage points are. I find that more inspiring than frustrating.

Are these leverage points something you work on at your research chair at TUM?

Exactly. We mostly work with participatory methods. That means that the people concerned are involved as active partners in the research process. At the moment, for example, we are addressing the task of how to develop better preventive health care in residential facilities for the disabled. Under the Prevention Act, passed in 2016, this care is a requirement, but the public health insurers that provide the funds are often unsure of how to reach this segment of the population.

What have you found out?

Now we know, for example, that people with disabilities are often very interested in their health, too, and would be happy to take part in appropriate activities, preferably in clubs in their community. In another project, we developed and tested movement programs for older people with mental disabilities.

„The search for social inclusion is a responsibility that must also be taken on by the world of science.”- Prof. Elisabeth Wacker

What role do you see for the sociology of diversity at a Technical University?

At TUM we have long been aware of the effects of technologies and society on one another. This also applies to research in the social sciences. Technologies are designed by and for people. This can occur in very different ways and with very different target groups. Consequently, it is very important to pay attention to diversity. The search for social inclusion is a responsibility that must also be taken on by the world of science. That is where the sociology of diversity comes into play.

How do you work together with other scientists?

We have discussions with colleagues from the world of architecture, for example, about how a healthy city should look and how barriers can be avoided. In another project we might work with people from the medical technology field and think about how to produce perfectly fitted and affordable prosthetics with a 3D printer, for example in African countries. With an empowerment concept we can find out how information should be structured or the best way of reaching the persons concerned.

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