Interview: Blind for a while, or ÖZIV expanding the view on barriers

People with disabilities continuously accompany us in our project work as experts in their fields. In October 2019, our international project team went on a barrier detection trip to the Donau-Auen National Park near Vienna, Austria. For two hours all participants were allowed to explore a nature trail in a wheelchair or with the help of a white cane. Under the guidance of the Austrian federal association of impaired people ÖZIV (Austria-wide Future-oriented Representation of Interests), we checked where barriers were hidden on the nature trail on the castle island in Orth. This nature trail will soon be redesigned to become barrier-free.

We talked to Isabella Aigner and Peter Noflatscher, who work for ÖZIV ACCESS, about the activities of ÖZIV, its current challenges and a new view on barriers.


ÖZIV has been active in Austria since 1962. Especially in the last decades we have been experiencing a strong change in society. Do you notice changes in your working fields?  

Indeed, the situation has improved considerably since the 1960s. Today, we have laws to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. In practice, however, things still look different - which is why strong representation of interests (also in cooperation with other organisations) is very important today in order to come as close as possible to the ideal of an inclusive society. Our focus is on the issues of accessibility and an inclusive labor market as well as the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Austria ratified in 2008, but where the implementation is still lacking in many areas!

To this end, the ÖZIV has developed offers that, on one hand, support companies and organisations in the areas of accessibility and sensitisation (ÖZIV ACCESS). On the other hand, those offers address people directly in order to make them fit for the labor market or support them in securing and obtaining a job (ÖZIV SUPPORT Coaching and ÖZIV WORK ASSISTANCE Lower Austria).

Together with our cooperation partners we want to achieve equal rights for people with disabilities - that's what we fight for every day!

Together with the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, the ÖZIV has developed a barrier-free self-check for companies from various sectors. What is the current dynamic of the transition to more accessibility in Austria?

The Barrier Check went online in 2015 in order to indirectly sensitize companies to the topic of accessibility and to inform them about the expiring transition periods in the Act on Equal Opportunities for Disabled Persons.

Since then, the Barrier-Check has become the standard tool for self-evaluation for companies. Of course, the access figures were tremendous, especially at the beginning, and have more than surprised both us and the Chamber of Commerce.

The access figures, which have been stable for several years now, prove that companies are still dealing with the topic of accessibility, which we also notice in the consulting requests that come to us via the Barrier Check.

In the construction sector, the development is still very modest. On one hand, the building laws of the federal states tend to take a step backwards in terms of accessibility, on the other hand, many planners and builders have still not recognized the necessity of accessibility. Often we are consulted too late in planning projects and therefore it is no longer possible to achieve optimal solutions.

And how do you assess the current situation in the area of barrier-free nature experience? Are there concrete measures or offers that ÖZIV implements on this topic?

In connection with nature and disability, there is still much to be done from our side. Nevertheless, we were able to accompany the project "Experience Nature for All" in the Austrian province of Carinthia with advice and sensitisation training. Initially, this involved visiting the planned paths together with the responsible authorities and discussing barrier-free redesign. In a further step, we offered sensitisation training in this context. Here, the participants were able to experience practical sensitisation through simulation material, e.g. glasses, white canes for the blind or wheelchairs. This was done by exploring paths and touching materials or perceiving an object with one of our simulation glasses. As you can see from our description, this project was also about training employees and providing support and practical implementation for path design. We were very pleased to be able to accompany your project "Nature without Barriers" with our awareness training. We hope that we will continue to have the opportunity to accompany and support such projects.

How do you evaluate the contribution of our project "Nature without Barriers" for your work concretely and for the area of barrier-free nature experience in general?

The project makes a significant contribution to the understanding of how diverse accessibility can be and what does this mean for nature experience. It is also an important way of making people with disabilities and their wishes more visible. At the same time, projects of this kind make them aware that they have the same needs as people without disabilities.

The offers of ÖZIV are very diverse. Besides training and support for people with disabilities, you also offer awareness training for all. These should help to break down barriers in people's mind. Can you give us a few examples here? How do you estimate the effect?

According to the feedback of the participants, our sensitization training has a positive effect in many ways. For example, they enable a change of perspective and the experience of impressive stories of guiding experts. In addition, participants receive theoretical input on accessibility, inclusion and disability from our long-standing employees, as well as insights into what a life with disability means. The participants gain the opportunity to exchange ideas directly with experts. Furthermore, the trainings give the opportunity to recognize barriers in the own working environment and to understand their impact on impaired people through practical exercises.

Dear Isabella, dear Peter, thank you so much for the interview and the exciting insights into your work!

This picture shows members of the project team trying out what it feels like to experience nature in a wheelchair. Many of the people are in wheelchairs, all others are assistants and responsible for safety on the road.
© Umweltdachverband

We, as a project team, had a great chance to experience such a sensitization training and asked our colleagues about their thoughts. One thing is common: something like this changes the view of barriers.

Ewa, Etna (Poland): After an accident I had to stay in a wheelchair for several months, I immediately remembered the experiences of those days. It is incredibly exhausting to always be dependent on the help of others. The more encouraging are the things you can manage on your own.

Michael, UWD (Austria): I have been severely short-sighted for many years, but being blind was a completely different experience. It is not easy to suddenly be dependent on others, but it also showed me in which different ways we can perceive nature.

Katja, GNF (Germany): Both being blind and in a wheelchair was new to me. The trial was accompanied by a certain degree of overcoming my own hidden fears, but it was a unique experience. I would never have thought that a 2 cm high edge on the bridge crossing would make the wheelchair get stuck.

Istvan, LBDCA (Hungary): I have always been a keen sportsman. I was often afraid that one day I would be in a wheelchair. Now, I made this experience and realized that this issue is much more multifaceted than I had imagined.

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