Her major is in International Relations and she loves to travel. She uses her tricycle for long trips. The 22-year-old student is a person of short stature and has pseudoachondroplasia. REHACARE.com spoke with her about her first impressions and experiences during her stay abroad.
Ms. Schöne, you currently study two semesters in Italy as part of the Erasmus exchange program. How do Italians treat people with visible disabilities like yours?
Andrea Schöne: Based on my experience, Italians have a more natural and open approach to a visible disability. Right from the start, I was not being stared at as much. Once when I had trouble getting up on the sidewalk, a store owner from across the street ran over and helped me. The willingness to help is far greater here than it is in Germany – even when I am not able to reach items on shelves when I shop for example. The supermarket near me even has a sign that states wheelchair users and older persons take priority.
I also see people both with physical and so-called cognitive disabilities on the street and in public every day. Just recently, a person with an electric wheelchair was approaching me at my university. This is not necessarily a given at German universities.
How do you rank the education system in Italy as a student?
Schöne: The Italian education system is a downright dream for students with disabilities. Since 1978, Italy no longer has special schools for students with disabilities. In Bologna and Forlì I have seen schools that added special ramps for wheelchair users so that students no longer need to enter the premises through the back entrance. Before my studies, I completed a language course in Bologna to improve my Italian language skills. I spoke with employees there and told them that I encountered great difficulties in Germany attending a regular school. They couldn’t even fathom that.
I also spoke with several other Italian friends about this and they were also surprised that things are this bad in Germany. Many of them had classmates with disabilities and thus seem far more open-minded towards people with disabilities. Incidentally, the Forlì Branch of the University of Bologna is also well designed: on the one hand, the School of Political Sciences building has a completely accessible design and I am able to reach every room with an elevator. On the other hand, every lecture hall features reserved seating for wheelchair users with a desk that can be added. Unfortunately, my university in Germany is not so well equipped.
Have you encountered any type of barriers so far?
Schöne: Needless to say, Italy also has its structural barriers – for instance if ramps are too steep or a store has a step in front. However, you always find quick help. What truly impressed and at the same time upset me is that the Forlì railway station with its two platforms is really very small but is still entirely accessible. The elevators also look like they have been installed at least ten years ago. My hometown Ingolstadt, which has as many residents as Forlì, created a accessible environment only about four years ago. And yet the Ingolstadt train station is significantly larger.
So the awareness of structural barriers seems to be greater in Italy?
Schöne: Yes, at least, that has been my impression so far. Having said that, I still noticed one barrier in the minds of people: insisting on complying with regulations and certain organizational arrangements. Train rides of wheelchair users who need extra help also need to be reserved in Italy. Since I am not familiar with the Italian bureaucracy and only needed someone to put my luggage and tricycle on the train, I didn’t worry about it. Two border policemen and railway associates were not amused and didn’t even want to hear my explanations. Instead, they made endless phone calls to find somebody to come and help me. However, this also always happens in Germany when I ride the train – even when I travel with a companion.
What makes Italy so special when it comes to inclusion?
Schöne: Above all, I believe Italy’s inclusive education system that I already mentioned makes it so unique. And one more positive aspect that I have noticed: for once, I no longer feel like an alien, a being from another planet. Even though I still attract attention to my disability because of my tricycle, it is nowhere near as extreme as things are in Germany.
A direct comparison between Italy and Germany – what is your verdict?
Schöne: Based on the attitudes of people and the legal situation, I clearly would give Italy a higher rating. On the whole, people are more open-minded here. Having said that, those are my impressions after approximately six months and I have not been able to gain insights into all areas of life yet. For example, I am not able to judge how things are in the working world or when it comes to insurance issues. What I would like to see in Germany is simply to work more closely with other countries that have implemented inclusion in education for example for many years already – and not to keep wanting to reinvent the wheel.
Compared to previous years, however, a lot has changed for the better in Germany. That’s why it would be unfair to say that Germans are unwilling to change things. I have many good friends who don’t have a disability and are very open-minded and who help me when I need it. Nevertheless, I would still rank Germany below Italy in terms of open-mindedness. I would guess that Italians are more used to people with disabilities in everyday life thanks to their inclusive education system and are thus able to interact better with them.