Whether we’re getting around by car, bike, metro or just heading across the street, it takes a whole city to keep us mobile.
“Going to a regular school, it didn’t take long for me and the other kids to get used to each other, that it was normal. That was the key to the path of the rest of my life.”
In the English-speaking world, it’s called “wheelchair accessible.” In German, the equivalent term has a more inspirational ring: “barrierefrei,” barrier-free.
Franz Joseph Huainigg, 51, has been wheel-chair-bound most of his life and is no stranger to obstacles. And overcoming them. Representing the disabled in Parliament for the ÖVP, hosting radio programs, and writing books for both children and adults, he has contributed to many improvements for the physically and mentally disabled here.
When his parents refused to put him into a school for the disabled, he became the first disabled pupil at his primary school in Carinthia. In fact, it wasn’t until he was applying for summer camp abroad that he was confronted with the idea that he was different.
“When I applied for a camp in the UK, it was the first time I actually filled in a form where I had to identify myself as ‘disabled,’” Huainigg recalled. “Having never felt that I was different up to that point, it somehow didn’t feel right.”
He was shocked at first seeing other disabled children there, but after a couple of days, felt they were as normal as he was.
After he graduated from the University of Carinthia, he found the state also was classifying him differently. When he was job-hunting, the local Public Employment Service told him that, with his condition, he was qualified for disability. For him, this was not an option.
He left Carinthia and tried his luck in Vienna, finding a job at the radio station Ö1. Back in 1992, Vienna was most certainly not barrier-free. There were no ramps or access to public transport for the disabled. But his travels had shown him how much better it could be elsewhere.
“When I first went to America 20 years ago, I was truly astounded by the accessibility,” Huainigg said. “But Austria has caught up in the meantime. Facilities were built later here, and are therefore newer. So when I revisited New York a couple of years ago, they were kind of shabby in comparison!”
Back in Austria – now largely barrier-free – it was good to be home.