Committee on the Rights of Persons
3 September 2013
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities today completed its consideration of the initial report of Austria on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Presenting the report of Austria, Ambassador Helmut Tichy, Legal Advisor, Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, said that Austria had been among the first States to sign the Convention and the Optional Protocol in March 2007 and had ratified both instruments in the summer of 2008. The ratification of the Convention and the Optional Protocol had given the Austrian policy on disability, equal treatment and anti-discrimination tremendous impetus. While much remained to be done, the Convention had become a frame of reference for any action taken regarding disability rights.
Ronald McCallum, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for the Report of Austria, congratulated Austria for its National Action Plan on Disabilities 2012-2020, which constituted an important instrument in the implementation of the Convention. While the National Action Plan was a good beginning, it seemed that there was a limited contribution made by the provinces or ‘Länder’ and that there was undue fragmentation in the laws and policies concerning persons with disabilities. Mr. McCallum called for greater coordination at different levels of government.
During the discussion, Committee Experts noted the specific reference to sign language in the Austrian Constitution, as well as positive efforts towards the implementation of the Convention. Of particular concern, however, remained the prevalence of a medical approach to disabilities and institutions. Other issues raised included the guardianship model and obstacles to the implementation of national plans given the federal structure and fragmented legal, judicial and service-delivery. Experts also asked questions about the removal of barriers, the provision of assistance, education, health, the situation of refugees and migrants, the status of monitoring mechanisms, and the mainstreaming of the Convention in Austria’s international humanitarian and development assistance work.
Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, Chairperson of the Committee, speaking in concluding remarks, thanked Ambassador Tichy and the Austrian delegation for the answers provided and reminded them that further replies could be submitted in writing within the next 24 hours. Ms. Cisternas Reyes further thanked Austria for the frank discussion and Committee Members who had taken part.
The Austrian delegation included representatives from the Federal Ministry of European and International Affairs; Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection; Federal Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth; Federal Ministry of Justice; Federal Ministry of Science and Research; Federal Chancellery; Office of the State Government of Upper Austria; Office of the State Government of Lower Austria; Office of the State Government of Stytia; and the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place this afternoon, at 3 p.m., when the Committee will consider the initial report of Australia (CRPD/C/AUS/1).
Report of Austria
The initial report of Austria on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can be found here: CRPD/C/AUT/1.
HELMUT TICHY, Ambassador, Legal Advisor, Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, Vienna, said that Austria had been among the first States to sign the Convention and the Optional Protocol in March 2007 and had ratified both instruments in the summer of 2008. The ratification of the Convention and the Optional Protocol had given the Austrian policy on disability, equal treatment and anti-discrimination tremendous impetus. While much remained to be done, the Convention had become a frame of reference for any action taken on disability rights. Austria looked forward to the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on realising the Millennium Development Goals for persons with disabilities, which would be attended by President Heinz Fischer, and which was expected to provide an important opportunity to promote accessibility and the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of development towards 2015 and beyond. Human rights played a central role in Austria’s policy in general and its disability policy in particular, but Austria recognised that full implementation rather than ‘rights on paper’ constituted the real challenge.
Austria attached great importance to co-operating with non-governmental organizations in the sphere of disability rights and a broad discussion process had been organised following the ratification of the Convention. The participation of civil society organizations had been an important element for the drafting of the first State report and for the elaboration of the National Action Plan on Disability, which had taken into account suggestions and criticism voiced by civil society. Concerning the participation of persons with disabilities in public life, several persons with a disability were members of the Austrian Parliament and, since one of them was deaf, deliberations of Parliament were translated into sign language. From January 2014, for the first time, there would be two blind judges in an Austrian Court. The Austrian National Action Plan on Disability 2012-2020 provided the main framework for Austria’s disability policy, it recognised that disability was a cross-cutting issue and contained 250 measures to be implement by 2020.
The protection and promotion of human rights now fell explicitly within the remit of the Austrian Ombudsman Board and that board also monitored facilities and programmes for people with disabilities in order to prevent the occurrence of violence as required by the Convention. The Austrian Disability Law of 2006 was an example for the protection of the human rights of persons with disabilities and consisted of an amendment to the disability employment act, the federal disability equality act, and the federal disability act. With this legislation Austria went far beyond its obligations under the European Union Framework Directive for equal treatment in employment and occupation, as the laws did not only refer to protection against discrimination in area of work but also in daily life. Accessibility or freedom from barriers was an essential condition for the equality of persons with disabilities and their participation in society, which as a key area of Austrian disability policy, and in close connection to the disability equality law.
Schooling was important as the starting point in the education process, leading to qualification and skills required for jobs. Equal participation in the education sector was of fundamental importance for equal participation in the life of society. In response to the list of issues drafted by the Committee, Austria had replied comprehensively to the various questions in the context of the current system of guardianship, which meant substituted decision-making, the Austrian Government would start a model project for ‘supported decision-making’ in autumn 2013. The paradigm shift from the system of guardianship to a support system with a view to enabling persons to decision-making of their own will would be a long process. Personal assistance should enable persons with disabilities to participate in the labour market and in other spheres of life.
A Representative of the Federal Monitoring Committee of Austria welcomed the opportunity to participate in the review of the report through the framework of accessibility and inclusion. Upon ratification, the Government had instructed the Parliament that the Convention did not ‘necessitate any action’, but a change of heart had taken place in a good number of Government departments. However, challenges remained and sharing the responsibility for implementation among the ministries and applying the Convention’s principles cross-cuttingly was fraught with difficulties. The response from the provinces had been slow, including complete denial of the Convention for their level of government. The sentiment was that there was a lack of respect vis-à-vis persons with responsibilities. While a healthcare setting by its nature magnified the importance of showing people respect, it still reflected attitudes of society at large. Persons with disabilities were by and at large not viewed as being equal. Regretfully, despite repeated motions in the annual report for the Federal Disability Council, there had only so far been happenstance activities for changing the public perception and attitudes.
Education was a key element of changing attitudes and persons with disabilities wanted to be treated as normal persons. In June 2010, a recommendation had been issued to make education in its entirety, including the teaching profession and life-long learning, accessible to all. There was a practical challenge in finding people who would be willing and able to provide support if they had grown without contact with persons from disabilities. Persons with disabilities were also at a higher risk because they had not been adequately enabled to set boundaries to better protect their integrity. Regarding education, participation from persons for disabilities posed a huge learning curve, including for the Monitoring Committee. Participation was not about making discussions accessible but about making the dialogue meaningful and having people, self-advocates, supporters, family members and others to have a say. Given that the Government itself had adopted a comprehensive set of participation requirements, the Committee highlighted the importance of applying these requirements cross-cuttingly at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. The Monitoring Committee sought to flag the institutional shortcomings that had been presented in its written submission and that Austria’s response to the list of issues insinuated that all requirements were met was puzzling.
Austria’s Ombudsman Board said that the Board allowed any individuals to file complaints under Austrian law and since July 2012 the Board had the additional mandate to protect and promote human rights and the capacity to undertake, under the Convention, visits to facilities and programmes designed to serve persons with disabilities, including comprehensive powers to access all rooms and areas of visited facilities, and to conduct conversations in a protected non-coercive and anonymous atmosphere with residents, patients, family members and employees. A human rights advisory council had been established to advise the Board in the determination of general investigative points, definition of investigative standards and prior to issuing recommendations. The Board would be grateful for guidance from the Committee regarding Article 16 of the Convention. In various facilities the Board had found cases of maladministration and conditions that raised human rights concerns. Frequent problems related to authoritarian behaviour with little respect for self-determination, autonomy and development of persons with disabilities, the use of medicinal and mechanical measures restricting their freedom, and the lack of opportunities to participate in decision making, lack of staff and lack of adequate qualifications.
Questions and Comments by the Rapporteur
RONALD MCCALLUM, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for the Report of Austria, congratulated Austria on producing its initial report in a timely manner, on its detailed and comprehensive answers to the list of issues prepared by the Committee, and for its National Action Plan on Disabilities 2012-2020 which constituted an important instrument in the implementation of the Convention. Mr. McCallum thanked the national human rights institution and other stakeholders for their contributions to the discussion. The National Action Plan was a good beginning but it seemed that there was a limited contribution from the provinces or ‘Länder’. It appeared that there was undue fragmentation in the laws and policies concerning persons with disabilities and it was to be hoped that greater coordination would occur between the Länder and the Federal Government. The Convention established that its provisions should extend to all parts of federal states without any limitations or exceptions. When examining the definitions of disability in various laws, it appeared that the medical model was still dominant and thought should be given to attuning laws to the social model in accordance to the Convention.
Article 5 of the Convention outlined discrimination and while Austria counted with anti-discrimination laws, these should be strengthened. For example the anti-discrimination act provided only for one form of remedy, financial compensation, and did not provide for the reduction of barriers. While the National Action Plan seemed to encourage the development of these laws, much more needed to be done and, for example, there appeared to be no injunctive power in these laws to provide redress for discrimination. With powers divided between Federal and provincial governments greater coordination was warranted, perhaps an overarching approach to accessibility. As a university teacher, Mr. McCallum was concerned about education, since it seemed that Austria had not embraced inclusive education. The number of children in special schools seemed to be on the increase and limited efforts had been made to support the inclusive education of children with disabilities. There seemed to be few university graduates with disabilities.
It also appeared that there was a lack of training of teachers with disabilities and teachers who used sign language, without whom deaf children were placed at a significant disadvantage. Mr. McCallum regarded employment as an important issue and noted that the Convention required employment to be in an open labour market, but there seemed to be far too many sheltered workshops in Austria. There seemed to be big differences in the Länder and the overarching federal approach to limiting sheltered workshops seemed warranted. Programmes for increasing employment were preferable from limited quota systems. It also appeared that too many Austrians with disabilities were living in institutions and that over the past 20 years the population of institutional dwellers had increased. Institutions rendered people vulnerable to violence and abuse and Mr. McCallum hoped that the Government would place greater efforts in de-institutionalisation and allowing persons with disabilities to decide where to live.
In 2012, approximately 55,000 Austrians were under guardianship which was of concern because Austrian guardianship laws seemed old-fashioned and out of line with article 12 of the Convention. Much more needed to be done to limit as much as possible the situation of substituted decision making. Violence, including sexual violence against women and girls with disabilities and in some occasions against men and boys, appeared to be endemic in many countries, and much needed to be done to eliminate this kind of violent behaviour. Too few polling booths met the standards of full accessibility and Austrian disabled-persons organizations were upset about the German translation of the Convention, which used the word ‘integration’ instead of ‘inclusion’ and Mr. McCallum hoped that German-speaking nations would agree on the use of the latter. Finally, Mr. McCallum congratulated Austria on the establishment of a Monitoring Committee, however, he noted that it was not fully independent, in accordance with the Paris Principles. Independent committees should be established in the different Länder to ensure a coordinated approach.
Questions from Experts (Art. 1-10)
Experts asked the delegation for additional information concerning the number of cases which were not settled and ended up in court, disability based discrimination, and what was the courts’ decision. Noting that under the law there was only a possibility of a fine, was there information about instances of changes in behaviour or remedy instead of fines. Concerning accessibility, an Expert welcomed the use of sign language in Parliament, was this decision adopted on an ad hoc basic or was the decision made for future cases. Additional information was asked about plans for the removal of barriers in the city of Vienna by 2042 and whether there were monitoring mechanisms. Austria was employing a procurement system which required that investments were accessible to all citizens and no new barriers were created. How was this public procurement working in practice and what mechanisms existed to ensure it was implemented?
The report mentioned the new building code was partially implemented at the federal level but it had been noted that civil society had complained about the lack of sufficient monitoring. What efforts had been done in this regard? Regarding the translation of article 4 of the Convention, Experts noted that ‘integration’ differed from ‘inclusion’ and this had been criticised by civil society as had been mentioned. Had Austria considered the notion of universal design, which was a potential answer to this question? Following criticism of the translation of ‘independent living’, a German NGO had prepared a shadow translation, available online; did the Austrian Government have any plans to adopt this as an official translation, setting the example for other German-speaking nations. There seemed to be a lack of protection regarding sexual violence and abuse for women and girls with disabilities, were there plans to take measures in this regard? Concerning article 4, Expert also inquired about measures taken to promote a social rather than a medical approach?
How was Austria considering the implementation of the Convention in domestic legislation, in particular, as a federal state? In which way were persons with disabilities protected against discrimination outside the field of employment and what concept of disability was used in Austria when talking about discrimination? It seemed that the concept was rather medical and narrow. Experts also inquired about instances of multiple discrimination, how were elderly persons with disabilities protected by legislation in Austria? Experts expressed concern about the lack of information available about the situation of persons with disabilities who belonged to ethnic groups and instances of multiple discrimination, how did Austria guarantee that they had access to the different rights such as education, healthcare, and employment opportunities?
Regarding article 6 and questions about the best interest of the child, in the context of decision making in relation to persons with disabilities, and, regarding article 8, was Austria considering how to change the perception of persons with disabilities in Austria? There seemed to be an antique perception, they did not seem to be considered as persons of equal importance.
Experts noted that information and communication technologies had not been covered in the report and requested further information in this regard. Other experts inquired about the extent of harmonization of legislation, given differences in federal and regional definitions of disability. What definition had been adopted for the purpose of the submission? Paragraph 18 clearly showed a medical definition of disability, which assumed the perceived incapacity and imposed inferior economic and social condition, excluding them from society and undermining the principle of equality.
Had the State designated a particular form of disability for protection under paragraph 5? Regarding the references to the National Action Plan, only 20 measures out of the 250 might actually be effective. Also what was the connection between the national Action Plan and the European Union’s action plans, how did they complement each other? Concerning anti-discrimination law, it was obvious that there different laws and different efforts to deal with discrimination. Were there any efforts aimed at harmonising this? Also regarding article 5, Experts inquired about unconstitutional provisions concerning discrimination in the criminal code which allowed for abortion, which had been asked during the examination of other reports regarding non-discrimination provisions of the Convention.
Experts suggested that the central problem in Austria seemed to be the fragmentation between the central government and the Länder, who by far were the service providers. For this reason, it seemed strange that the National Action Plan included only limited actions for the Länder. Were there any plans to address this fragmentation? Concerning article 8, Mr. McCallum felt that insufficient thought had been given to awareness raising efforts under article 8. It seemed that it was difficult to get information concerning this procedures, or insufficient publicity about this process.
Experts also requested additional information concerning specific steps taken as part of the action plan, in particular, concerning political participation, including specific efforts to implement the recommendations made by other treaty bodies after the consideration of the reports of Austria. One Expert also inquired about measures to protect the right to life of children expected to be born with disabilities, given the decreasing rates of children born with Down Syndrome and the Austrian legislation concerning adoption. Regarding accessibility, not much had been said about health services and in particular to reproductive services, could the delegation provide information in this regard? Concerning accessibility how could the Federal government ensure that persons with disabilities living in different Länder enjoyed the same standards, in areas related to housing and construction, transport, communications, services and standards?
Response by the Delegation
HELMUT TICHY, Ambassador, Legal Advisor, Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, Vienna, said that the delegation would attempt to respond to as many questions as possible. This exercise was very instructive and the interest of Committee Experts allowed for the calibration of priorities. Concerning the German translation of the Convention, Austria took the concerns expressed very seriously; it would look at the shadow translation that was mentioned and would contact other German-speaking States. Concerning the question about sign language in the Austrian Parliament, Mr. Tichy said it was his understanding that it was a decision that sign language would be provided permanently but for the members of Parliament and the larger audience.
Regarding questions about awareness raising, the delegation indicated that a congress had taken place with an emphasis on opportunities and the contribution that persons with disabilities could make. Other laws pointed on the direction of human dignity and the media was quite free to develop its programming. In terms of awareness raising, the Ministry of Health had policies for early diagnostic of disabilities. Together with the Council of Europe, Austria was planning a big congress on the issue of human rights and disabilities and Committee Members were welcome to attend and an information campaign was planned with different organisations and Länder to show the inclusive society that Austria wanted to bring about. The delegation emphasised the deep roots of Austrian federalism and the need to respect legislation at each level of government. The National Action Plan had invited the Länder to participate and improvements in coordination for national implementation would take place.
A representative of Styria (Länder) and member of the delegation, said that Länder representatives were included in the group behind the National Plan and expected that additional representatives would respond to the invitation and become part of the group behind the plan. Concerning the criticism that Länder had not been involved the Action Plan, it was noted that the government of Styria had established its own plan, which counted with a number of phases, in cooperation with the Labour Ministry. In different Länder concrete measures had been taken with regards to the implementation of the Convention, in another case an advertising campaign had been carried out, and meetings had taken place in other Länder to foster awareness, in another case a curriculum for inclusive education had been developed.
Concerning the question of equality and anti-discrimination, the delegation addressed conciliation procedures in the Ministry of Social Affairs. In a significant part of the conciliation procedures an agreement had been possible, particularly in the context of barriers. Regarding court cases, unfortunately statistical data was not available since the suits were not characterised by the Courts to indicate whether they concerned persons with disabilities. A wheelchair user had sued a bus driver who had not allowed him to use the ramp to access the bus, in another case a bakery was made to change its entrance to allow wheelchair access, Concerning sign language for people with hearing impairing this was included as often as possible and interpreters were available to prevent discrimination.
Regarding labour, two studies had been carried out to improve and further develop protection and anti-discrimination law, in particular, to achieve a barrier free system. Regarding instances of multiple discrimination, the Ministry of Social Affairs was responsible because of its particular expertise and in these instances compensation was higher, for example, for persons with disabilities who belonged to ethnic minorities.
Pre-natal diagnosis, abortion and legal and ethical aspects had been discussed during the creation of the National Action Plan and a wider dialogue would take place on this issue. Concerning radio and television broadcasting, a staged plan had been created to increase the number of barrier-free programming. Concerning the National Action Plan, it had been said than only a few measures had been implemented, but the delegation stressed that 38 measures alone were included in the list the most important measures implemented.
A representative from Upper Austria (Länder) and member of the delegation commented about the plans to make the city of Vienna barrier free. Three decade-long stages were included in the plan and evaluation mechanisms according to the priorities established. Regional offices and magistrates’ building had priorities concerning changes.
Concerning the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the situation of children with disabilities, and the question about how their rights could be implemented, the Ministry had created an independent expert group, including representatives of civil society working with children and children with disabilities. This monitoring board had been created and had created 12 subgroups, dealing with issues such as data collection on children with disabilities, children threatened by discrimination, and participation. Austria was currently the only country where the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its principles were enshrined in the Constitution. Regarding the lack of harmonization mentioned by a number of Experts, the delegation highlighted the federal law for children, which provided a legal basis for harmonisation and within one year Länder would have to adapt their laws and standards of quality.
Concerning the specific situation of women, the delegation acknowledged that equality between men and women had not been fully implemented in Austria. Women with disabilities faced double discrimination. The obstacles faced were huge, relationships were characterised by male dominance and the situation faced by women with disabilities was of concern. For the Ministry of Women it was of utmost importance that women with disabilities were empowered. Women counselling and protection centres were available, also for women for disabilities and should be barrier-free, for which they could receive funding and additional support. A new reporting form for counselling had been launched by the Ministry of Women, which would provide for the gathering of disability-related data. The National Action Plan for gender equality in the labour market aimed at addressing the pay-gap and other challenges in the labour market, also for reconciling work and family life, and the situation of women with disabilities was taken into account but there was not a specific section dedicated to it.
Questions from Committee Experts
Experts also raised questions about measures to ensure that the needs of persons with disabilities were taken into account in the context of emergency and humanitarian relief, including access to information and water and sanitation. Were any specific strategies for persons with disabilities at risk and whether there were any national plans dealing with humanitarian disasters?
One of the Experts welcomed the participation of Representatives of the Ombudsboard and thanked them for the update on the status of the criminal procedure. Concerning those persons unable to participate in a trial, was the principle of reservation under the law preserved and what oversight mechanisms addressed guardianship? What measures had been taken to ensure that courts’ decisions concerning guardianship were taken on an individual basis.
The report said very clearly that the Office of the Ombudsperson believed there was discrimination on the grounds of disability and that persons suffering from multiple discrimination did not have access to justice, given the separation of competences in the Austrian legislative and judicial system. What steps would be taken to resolve this problem. In the context of the situation of children with disabilities what measures had been taken to ensure access to information. What was the situation concerning forced sterilisation of women with disabilities. The delegation had said that no forced sterilisation had been carried out, in particular, since the agreement of the guardian was required. The expert noted that this was against the Convention, which required the approval of the person and not of the guardian.
Experts also asked if it was possible for a person, where there had been a decision that he or she would receive assistance, for them to decide where they wished to live by themselves, or whether there was a requirement to live where service was provided. Was it common that persons with, for instance, learning disabilities or other kinds of cognitive disabilities lived where working and living facilities were placed? Was it possible to have sign language interpretation to be included in the local community, for example, for leisure activities?
What kind of initiatives had been taken to make sure that persons with psychosocial disabilities were given the guarantee that their full consent would be given to any action taken on them because of their disabilities?
Concerning the pilot project on supported decision-making, how many persons would benefit from this pilot project, was that a meaningful number? Had organizations of persons with disabilities and users with psychosocial impairments been involved in the design of this pilot? Austria seemed to have large institutions for persons with disabilities with was a sign of the prevailing medical model. Much more was spent on these institutions than on independent living programmes, were there any plans to change this? Did Austria face the problem of children with disabilities not being registered and what was being done to eliminate the problem, if it existed?
Concerning groups of persons with disabilities who were further marginalised, for example those belonging to ethnic minorities, refugees or migrants, did any of them have access to the support provided by the Austrian Government for persons with disabilities? Were services provided in isolated or remote areas and were statistics available about the number of persons with disabilities from marginalised groups receiving support?
Experts inquired whether Austria, like many European Union States, was prepared to launch accessible, universal, measures that took into account the needs of persons with hearing impairments. What was the basis of the law on silence, did it apply to deaf persons under the supervision of third parties? How were the proceedings organised in terms of preventive measures for internment centres and sanctions? What was public policy concerning physical and chemical interment, were they in line with the Convention against Torture? What domestic measures to prevent torture were in place?
Response from the Delegation
HELMUT TICHY, Ambassador, Legal Advisor, Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, Vienna, said that the Austrian Development Agency had a policy document in international and humanitarian aid which mentioned persons with disabilities as a particularly vulnerable group. In practice the inclusion of persons with disabilities remained a challenge. For example, in Ethiopia, a project in cooperation with NGOs was supporting the distribution of food and medications for people affected by famine and draught. The project focused on persons with disabilities, along with women and children. Concerning humanitarian assistance in general, the Foreign Ministry counted with a humanitarian platform in which development assistance agencies participated with representatives of Government ministries and non-governmental organizations.
Concerning the registration of children with disabilities, Mr. Tichy indicated that everyone had to be registered after three days and the delegation was not aware of any exceptions. Concerning special assistance in general and the right to vote, elections commissions moved towards places were persons with disabilities were but, in particular for persons with psychosocial disabilities, they had the right to be accompanied and express their intention to be assisted by the person accompanying them.
The Ombudsman, responding to questions about the prevention of torture and due process for persons not being competent to stand trial, said that since July 2012 the Office of the Ombudsman was required to act as an independent authority and also as part of the national prevention mechanism, which constituted a double competency. 427 controls had been made but the higher goal of the Office was the promotion of institutionalisation and awareness building, from integration to inclusion. Austria was one of the last countries with net-beds and a decision of the Supreme Court had established that people could be placed in these beds which was the least worst form of constraint. Many guardians were asked to act in many matters, no contact between the persons concerned and, in the past, problems had arose from the sale of property against the will of persons with disabilities by the guardians; but measures had been taken to improve the current situation.
A member of the delegation indicated that allowances for care ranged from 154 to 1,653 Euro and there were 440,000 Austrians receiving this care allowance at the moment which accounted for 5 per cent of the population. The average allowance was of 465 Euro per month. For the last two years the Federal Government had been in charge of granting this allowance and the system was harmonised, hoping to improve the delivery of assistance. At the federal level, several measures to support people from disabilities were available, for example public transport, and more information would be provided by representatives from the Länder. Freedom to live and to spend leisure time concerned institution-based forms of living but different forms of assistance, including leisure time assistance and free of charge access to sign language interpreters, were available in different Länder. Refugees and migrants had access to services as long as they regularised their residency in Austria. A representative of Upper Austria (Länder) noted that public transport was not barrier-free in rural areas, including stops, vehicles and the need to announce trips beforehand, which posed some limitations to flexibility.
Concerning guardianship, a representative from the Ministry of Justice said that the provisions of the Convention did not specify the legal measures that should be implemented but the principles, including proportionality and the use of guardianship as a last resort. There were different guardianship systems in Europe and Austria’s system did not seem inappropriate. In practice, access to social services was becoming more difficult and it was important to make systems barrier-free, for example, concerning the paperwork and due process required for persons with disabilities to claim benefits. Guardianship organizations, promoted by the State to monitor persons with intellectual impairments, aimed at providing a high-quality system but there were sometimes not enough resources which had led to complaints. Guardianship in the Austrian system was often considered as a compensation for structural problems and the lack of assistance. It was important to consider when guardianship was really needed or if other forms of assistance were available. A model project was underway and, among other steps, centres were being planned to provide additional resources in the environment of persons concerned and to replace the guardianship system.
Austrian legislation required consent for medical treatment of persons with disabilities, or that from the guardian in case that the person could not understand the nature of the treatment. This was also the case for contraceptive measures. The delegation indicated that sterilisation was only available for people who were capable of deciding, with the exception of cases of extreme health risks in which courts were involved in decision-making. Curtailing freedom was only possible when the person concerned suffered from a mental illness and was endangering him or herself or others, and as a measure of last resort. Examination procedures for interning people in psychiatric institutions required that a decision was taken in court.
A representative from the Health Ministry, responding to questions about the decrease in the number of new born babies suffering from Down Syndrome, recognised that abortions were carried out at many levels and data in this area was not available as these procedures were carried out anonymously. Objectives had been developed, for example, to provide children with equal opportunities to find their place in society. Among other objectives, it was believed that cohesion was good for the promotion of health.
Regarding the problem of violence against children with disabilities, the delegation noted that a monitoring board had been established and that the Ministry for Youth and Family had carried out some studies. There was an Ombudsman for children and youth. In the next legislative period a campaign would be undertaken. Concerning the dissemination of key documents in simple language, the delegation noted that the Convention as well as other key documents were available and there was a harmonised quality standard for these documents.
The delegation also mentioned the “Compilation of life experiences of persons with disabilities” produced by the Council of Europe and to which two Austrian Parliamentarians had made contributions. Concerning the influence of the Council of Europe, its Disability Plan provided a roadmap and constituted a European tool for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Questions from Experts
What policy did Austria have to ensure access to historical sites and efforts to strike a balance between conservations and accessibility? Was there any training available for conservation specialists on how to make historical buildings accessible for people with disabilities?
Had evaluations been carried out to determine the quality of teaching in special schools to establish if children were being taught to the maximum of their capabilities? Did all persons with disabilities who sought to participate in elections have access to the necessary transportation and assistance to be able to participate in the democratic process? It appeared that some persons in Austria were not able or were not entitled to vote and Experts inquired about the rationality for this.
What percentage of Austria’s international cooperation and assistance focused on persons with disabilities? In the context of the article 33 of the Convention, Experts inquired whether Austria’s monitoring mechanisms were in full compliance with the Paris Principles, in particular, regarding their independence.
Experts also asked about the inclusion of persons with disabilities in Austria’s national disaster preparedness plans. Under the political parties act, were there any references to persons with disabilities or was any work planned to encouraged participation of persons with disabilities in political parties?
Concerning the twin-plan approach to ensure that sectoral projects, such as energy and water programmes, were accessible and included persons with disabilities, what efforts were being made to ensure that participation and implementation of these programmes included persons with disabilities? How was the Convention used to develop key documents in the context of multilateral efforts, including in the context of the United Nations, the European Union and other bilateral and multilateral efforts. What was the standard regarding cooperation, inside the European Union and at the international level?
Greater efforts needed to be made in the field of inclusive education, were there further plans to make inclusive education more viable and to address the lack of university graduates with disabilities? Experts also inquired about efforts to increase the number of persons with disabilities in the labour market. While Austria should be commended for it monitoring mechanism, Experts raised concerns about the need to ensure it was fully independent in accordance to the Paris Principles.
While Experts welcomed the decision to use some Länder and models for pilot programmes, what would happen to special schools in these regions? The Convention required a much more radical change of paradigm that what seemed to be understood by the Austrian Government. Radical change and the abolition of any form of segregation in the educational system were required.
Concerning access to information, Experts inquired whether there was an internationally recognised standard that Austria was using with regards to information for persons with disabilities. In relation to cultural materials, did Austria have any copyright exception laws with regards to access to printed material for persons with disabilities?
Employment seemed to be equally defined for persons with and without disabilities. Was there a focus on getting persons with disabilities employed rather than providing for compensations? Concerning the labour market pilot project 2014-2017 what was the forecast, were there any expectations or set projections?
Response from the Delegation
HELMUT TICHY, Ambassador, Legal Advisor, Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, Vienna, said that there were no restrictions for persons with disabilities to participate in elections. Concerning access to the voting process, transportation and assistance was indeed available. Political parties were free to decide on the composition of their lists of candidates. Three persons with disabilities were members of the Austrian Parliament.
Regarding refugees and migrants’ access to schooling, the delegation indicated that schooling was mandatory for long-term residents. Examinations determined whether children could be part of the school system, including language requirements and the need for simplified language. In case of children who did not meet the requirements to enter the school system, psychological and pedagogical experts, along with parents and the concerned children, would decide on the alternatives. There were an important number of children with disabilities in the school system. While the main approach promoted ‘integrative’ rather than ‘inclusive’ education, there were some driven school directors who had managed to promote an inclusive model in their schools. Legislation on university education had also been changed and introduced the notion of inclusiveness.
The Education Ministry had made a recommendation to different Länder to establish model regions but the recommendations had not been sufficiently concrete. In order to speak about ‘inclusion’ a different system would be necessary. Existing laws did not normally allow parents to decide whether children with disabilities would attend special schools, thus limiting persons with disabilities capacity to choose; however some Länder had taken additional steps to develop inclusive approaches, including small classes and the provision of special therapy.
While not all employers followed legal requirements, the delegation stressed that 65 per cent of employers were complying with the law. The Ministry of Social Affairs spent around 170 million euro in measures specifically geared towards persons with disabilities, severely disabled people who without this support would not be able to work. Furthermore, 5.6 million euro had been dedicated to other measures, including women and resources for professional apprentices, a programme for the period 2014-2017 had also been developed. According to the law persons with disabilities should not be placed in a lesser jobs or receive lower salaries because of their disabilities, compensation for differences in productivity due to disabilities should be provided by the State.
MARIA SOLEDAD CISTERNAS REYES, Chairperson of the Committee, speaking in concluding remarks, thanked Ambassador Tichy and the Austrian delegation for the answers provided and reminded them that written answers could be submitted to the Committee within the next 24 hours. Ms. Cisternas Reyes further thanked Austria for the frank discussion and Committee Members who had taken part in the discussion.
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