Sweden’s aim to create a society accessible to all is much more than removing physical obstacles for people with mobility impairment. It’s about meeting diverse needs with user-friendly solutions, a shift in attitudes, equal opportunities and the possibility to participate as an individual.
Roland Håkansson, a wheelchair user himself, works toward a Swedish society with equal rights and complete access for all. Photo: Albert Martinsson
Public authorities and agencies are working hard to set not only guidelines but also a good example for the rest of society. Roland Håkansson, general secretary of the Swedish Federation of People with Mobility Impairment (De Handikappades Riksförbund), says: “It’s about creating a system where we have rights.” A wheelchair user himself, Håkansson understands first-hand the daily challenges faced by people with disabilities.
Sweden is working toward a vision of complete access by 2010. The nationwide project “From Patient to Citizen: A National Action Plan for Disability Policy” started in 2000 after it was adopted by Swedish Parliament.
A national effort
The private sector is targeted through legislation while government ordinance largely covers public agencies and authorities. The main goals include ease of access to buildings and public transportation as well as removing everyday hurdles in the work-life environment. But the big picture is to eliminate discrimination on all levels, both in a practical sense and within the mind-set of society.
The Swedish Agency for Disability Policy Coordination (Handisam) works with issuing guidelines for government agencies on a local and national level.
Handisam director-general Carl Älfvåg says: “As a country, Sweden wants to be as progressive as possible when it comes to accessibility.” Currently, there are around 400 public agencies cooperating and the majority are preparing action plans of their own.
Accessibility also involves communication. Swedish Handisam has kept this in mind when developing their website.
While the project highlights open environments for wheelchair users, its scope is not limited to mobility. The aim is to meet the diverse requirements of people in all disability groups.
“We have to think further than simply building ramps,” Älfvåg says. “It’s about accessible communication and information for the hearing and visually impaired. It’s also about printed material and websites as well as education and recruitment and promotion policies when it comes to being an accessible employer.”
Numerous schemes in line with the plan are already in place. Sweden’s National Property Board (Fastighetsverket) is working with the National Heritage Board (Riksantikvarieämbetet) to improve access for visitors to castles and other listed buildings. On a regional level the transportation sector has improved information about accessible platforms for train passengers and has introduced low-threshold buses.
When it comes to IT, Älfvåg sees huge potential. “The internet has changed how we access and share information so many things can and are being done,” he says. “Agencies, especially those on a national level, are constantly working with this.”
A personal vision
Tiina Nummi-Södergren, president of the Swedish Association for the Visually Impaired (Synskadades Riksförbund), works with accessibility issues every day. Her understanding of the difficulties spans her professional and private life, having been blind since childhood.
Tiina Nummi-Södergren believes the barriers that people with disabilities face can be broken. Photo: Ragnvi Svärd
“There are no Braille markings on food packaging and the marks on a railway station platform can disappear under snow and ice in the winter,” she says. “And reading mail is a difficulty for a visually impaired person that lives alone.”
Södergren says there is an extreme amount of planning in her daily routines although she believes these barriers can be broken.
“For the blind and visually impaired, accessibility is about color and sound markings,” she says. “Websites with simple text-based formats are necessary so we can more easily use Braille or synthetic speech solutions.”
Human rights perspective
The national action plan is working toward raising awareness and creating solutions for such issues. According to Älfvåg, the much-talked-about title says it all: “From patient to citizen — it sums it all up,” he says. “It’s about a change in perspective and how we view and treat people with disabilities.”
Indeed, the long-term political ambition is to create a society in line with Swedish thinking from a human rights perspective. “It’s about making it mainstream policy,” Älfvåg says. “Individuals should be treated as such and be able to participate in society as an equal.”
The work to make Sweden accessible involves changing attitudes among the general public. Photo: Petter Johansson/imagebank.sweden.se
Benefits transcend practical and social advantages for the target groups. There are a number of gains for Sweden as a whole, especially when it comes to promoting increased participation. “It means more people can lead independent lives and enter the job market, which can have a positive effect on the economy,” Älfvåg says.
The main challenges involve employer attitudes and funding for new initiatives. Authorities are responsible for incorporating change and programs into their own budgets. Sixty percent of public agencies have now created their own agenda to improve accessibility.
"I am confident that by 2010 we will have seen some positive changes in Swedish society,” Älfvåg says. “There is slow but sure progress being made, in a broad sense and through smaller initiatives, and we are committed to a long-term perspective when it comes to accessibility for all.”
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Christine Demsteader is a freelance journalist from England who has been based in Stockholm since 2002. Having began her career at the BBC, she has worked for Swedish Radio as well as various English-language publications and websites in Sweden.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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