Digital inclusion – nobody should be without a voice!


Diakonie & VERBUND on International Day of People with Disabilities

Access to communication tools (such a those used for video conferencing) has become more important for all of us in times of social distancing. Yet what is fortunately a matter of course for many people in Austria – having a PC, access to the internet, being able to use video conferences, etc. – is sadly not a matter of course for 63,000 people in Austria. Due to their speech impairments, they need “special” technical aids. Some of them need, for example, a device that replaces the spoken word – their “voice” – (so-called “speech output devices”), some need “only” a suitable PC input device to be able to get in contact with others via the computer. 
Legal entitlement to technical aids for people with speech impairments still outstanding
That is why the social welfare organisation Diakonie and VERBUND have together spent over 10 years demanding a legal entitlement to technical aids for people with speech impediments. But it still hasn’t been sorted. “Austria still lacks the legal entitlement to technical speech assistance. That means affected children and adults are unable to express their most urgent needs. They are also denied inclusion in schooling and social life.” With these words, Maria Katharina Moser, Diakonie director, renews the demand for a #RightToCommunication together with its cooperation partner VERBUND on 3 December, International Day of People with Disabilities. “Because everyone has the right to communication,” is the joint message of Diakonie director Moser and VERBUND CEO Michael Strugl.

Still no legal entitlement and no standardised financial aid

To date, there is neither a legal entitlement to Assistive Technology nor standardised financial aid for affected individuals. The bureaucratic hurdles are enormous. “A central point of contact is required for people in need of assistance. The situation is different in each province and very opaque. The financing arrangements must also be finally settled – because assistance is expensive,” says the Diakonie director. The fact that the issue of legal entitlement still remains unresolved after 10 years is “highly regrettable because only legally based entitlement can assure people that everyone who needs assistance will actually get it,” says Moser. 
Red tape

“When people with disabilities need assistance, they have to cut through tons of red tab,” she says, criticising the system. The application process is complicated, opaque and protracted. Because different agencies and institutions at federal and provincial level remain involved in support services to this day. The central point of contact (one-stop shop) has been promised for years. In May 2021, the Ministry of Social Affairs was instructed to implement one-stop shops. That implementation now has to happen. Because the concepts for this are available – one example is Germany.
Germany – a model example
In Germany, the route to appropriate assistance is transparent and comprehensible. First, a person’s needs are assessed because there is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to assistance. The evaluation and, if necessary, an adjustment of the assistance are part of the process. The costs are covered by the health fund because there is a legal entitlement to assistive technology and communication devices. The fear of this leading to an explosion in costs for the health funds is unfounded. Spending on assisted communication in Germany accounts for only 0.01% of total health spending. Shifting the concept to Austria, a comparable, nationwide system would cost around €4.42 million.

Financial assistance is a matter for the public sector
Michael Strugl, CEO VERBUND and partner to Diakonie in matters of Assisted Communication: “We have been pushing for the legal entitlement to Assistive Technology and Assisted Communication with Diakonie for more than ten years now. I think it is high time that policymakers and the public sector accept responsibility.” 
Since 2009, the VERBUND Diakonie Empowerment Fund has enabled the individual counselling of around 6,000 people with disabilities on Assisted Communication and Assistive Technology. In parallel with this, almost 12,000 educators, therapists and immediate family members have been sensitised and informed on key issues such as early intervention for children with disabilities at over 1,000 workshops and seminars.

Ingun Metelko Ingun Metelko

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